It's the woman's decision in the end, he thought, but it's not fair. She had told him she wanted children. Two weeks in she said it, staring down at her shoes, and he knew then she was serious.
Alex looked around the room at all the 40-somethings wearing skinny jeans and leather jackets and wondered whether his friends, the ones who had children, had actually wanted them. Could he even be a good father if he didn't want the child in the first place? Would the child know it wasn’t wanted?
He thought about his life and how it seemed unfocused and scattered. Like an amorphous being, an amoeba. His father had been a successful corporate lawyer and so had his grandfather. They were men who got things done, who built houses, founded families. And what had he done? He managed to make a living as a filmmaker, with steady work, no small feat, he often thought to himself and yet, he felt he could never measure up against his elders. A house, a family, they were dreams from a different world with entirely different rules. But then, she also came from a different world with different rules.
He’d dodged most of the addictions so many of his artist friends suffered from, focusing his compulsiveness on cultural consumption: philosophy, literature, music, theater, fine art, poetry. He ate it all up. In Valentina, he’d found a fellow devourer and a more-than-worthy opponent for his debates.
When they began dating they would discuss feminist philosophers, like Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler, sometimes for hours. She knew a lot more than him on the subject and this delighted and annoyed him at the same time, but delight usually prevailed. So when she told him about wanting children, he was stunned. Having children seemed to him like the downfall of any kind of feminist life plan. He'd witnessed this tragedy unfolding with many of his friends. The intentions of equality at the beginning of the pregnancy, the possessiveness and overwhelming fatigue of the new mothers, the indifference and alienation of the new fathers, the erosion of the couple thereafter, like a perfect pound cake cracking more and more, until it splits.
They’d met at a concert in a local bar. She noticed him immediately, leaning against a wall, listening to the band intently, and she loved how he seemed flighty and serious at the same time. A man-child for a girl-woman. On their first date, they sat on a park bench overlooking the old town, and talked and laughed until three o’clock in the morning. Towards the end of the night, he grabbed her hand and kissed her fingernails, crossing his legs away from her. And there was something in the tentative movement of his long bony legs, and the sight of his delicate ankles in black socks. So she reached down, rested her hand on his thigh, and kissed him.
During sex one afternoon, she loved the way he felt inside her. “You should put on a condom,” she said and he nodded, but they kept going. They’d done all the tests, she was always diligent. Where was she in her cycle, she thought, and she heard herself say: “I think it’s fine.” “We should still use a condom,” he panted. She nodded. But neither stopped. After, she got up to pee and as she sat on the porcelain bowl, she asked herself if getting pregnant would be so bad. After all, they loved each other. She forgot all about it until five weeks later, when there was still no sign of her period. Her periods were irregular, so maybe she was just late.
She clutched her abdomen and stroked it, laughing. She needed to take a test before jumping to conclusions.
When she told him, his face was eerily still, eyes unblinking, mouth frozen into a slight smile. Like a man slowly backing away from a landmine. They were sitting in one of those bohemian cafés the city was so well known for, and she sipped on her renversé, hoping the drink would give her some courage. But all she felt were her cold, wet hands against the warm china and a foggy, stagnant kind of confusion clogging up her mind.
Valentina had moved to this windy city, north of where she came from, for her studies. On the first day of her master’s degree, early in the morning, she bought an espresso at the cafeteria. She’d brought some biscotti from home, as she wasn’t sure she would find the appropriate dolce to go with the beverage. She had to stop herself from cringing when she tried the concoction: bitter, metallic, burnt and expensive. She persisted for months, walking through the city, trying out all the espressi she could find. Eventually, she succumbed: milk coffee it is. The milk almost covered the awful coffee taste. “No self-respecting Italian drinks this,” her father said when he visited her at the end of her first year. “Even self-respecting Italians need to adapt,” she answered.
The cold mountain wind was ravaging the city that day, but he’d waited at a table outside. He wanted to smoke his rolled cigarettes. She smoked herself now and then, with an apèrol or a glass of wine, but cigarettes made her anxious — not one, not two, but cumulatively. That was before. Now she felt like severing her own head whenever she smelled tobacco. She’d yelled at an old lady smoking next to her at the bus stop the day before. The waifish woman had looked at her, startled, cigarette propped between her wispy fingers, and quickly moved away. Valentina felt bad, but the words had left her mouth before she’d been able to stop herself. This baby is eating my restraint, she thought. And now, him.
When she’d first entered his studio apartment, she was surprised it didn’t smell like tobacco. Turns out, at home, he only smoked e-cigarettes: walnut, toffee, waffle-flavored. The man had cravings. She'd asked him to cut back a few months ago. But he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, she didn’t know. Inflexible. That’s how her mother described him when she introduced him to her parents a few months back.
“Do you think you could be a father,” she asked, interrupting his silence, even though she knew the answer. But there’s a gap between the hypothetical and the real. It’s a gap that Valentina had the habit of filling with hopes and expectations. When he answered, his baritone voice seemed somehow deeper, graver. And warmer than usual. As though a feeling had crept in, one that he wanted to separate neatly from his words.
“We’ve talked about this before. I can’t see myself as a father,” he said. He couldn't see himself as many things, she thought. He lacked confidence. He’d been working on his professional homepage for the last 12 months. Since they’d met. It was never quite good enough to be put online. Never perfect. She suspected that’s what he thought of her as well – not perfect enough – and of his life. Find the flaw. If you looked, you would definitely find it.
They went together to the gynecologist's office a week later, and on the way she day dreamed not about what to do, but about what this child would look like. It would be a boy, she decided, tall, like him and like her father, but his hair would be a mix of hers and his, a kind of light brown, and he would have her nose, straight, like an arrow.
She tried to picture herself in the future and she knew she saw children, eventually. She was surprised a few years ago when she realized how much she wanted them. This was despite the fact that her childhood had not been very happy. Not in any spectacular way, but in a very ordinary way.
Her father, a kind but conservative pater familias, was a dentist with his own prosperous practice, which her older brother joined after finishing medical school, even though he had no real passion for dentistry. And her mother, a once promising painter, had put her ambitions on the back-burner to take care of her family. Their family, a well-oiled efficient machine — each cog knew its place, each one but her. She was the delightful anomaly, the creative savage, but she’d eventually grow out of it, of that they were sure.
As a teenager, she started to experience strange symptoms — rarely at first, then more and more often. A choking sensation, dizziness and a heightened sense of smell. She’d seen so many doctors, and they'd all found nothing. It’s like a migraine without the headaches, offered one; it could be asthma, but then the sense of smell wouldn’t be affected, said another. Valentina had accepted it and named it simply, Ginzburgitis, after her favourite writer and fellow youngest daughter. She felt it in school, when she was told she couldn’t play football with the boys, when they called her she-male for outdoing them in the high jump, or when she refused to wait for boys to make the first move and would chat them up instead.
“Too forward,” her mother said, “ you’ll scare them away.”
“These boys, who live with their mothers until their late 20s only to be given over to their wives, you mean, mamma? I don’t want them.”
After high school, she decided to study philosophy. “You’d be an amazing surgeon," her father offered, such dexterity. “Who can pick an argument apart better than you? ” her brother asked. "You should be a lawyer!" Only her mother understood.
It was at university that Valentina realized, among other things, not all boys were the same and she did actually want some of them. Her first serious boyfriend was kind and intelligent and had moved out of his parents’ house in his early 20s. They spent their time talking about art and philosophy and reveled in a shared hatred of Italian TV. It was the era of the feline, tall, lithe and silent beauties standing next to short, balding, loquacious older men and Berlusconi’s bunga bunga parties. But in their intimate moments, her emancipated boyfriend wanted her to take naked pictures, suggesting poses right out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog. She’d sometimes say no, sometimes yes, but no matter the answer, she’d feel it again: the choking sensation.
It was at the end of her bachelor’s degree that she decided to leave. She needed a place where she’d have some choices, more choices. Any choices, really. Romantic not economic migration.
So she moved to this new country, this protestant country, where people, at least in her circles, spoke openly of feminism and men did not hold the door, didn’t pay for dinner, but also didn’t expect her to pose naked, unless she wanted to. Here, she didn’t feel loved, but she felt understood. Only as she neared her late 20s did she realize something from the old world had survived. The desire for a family. The men she dated seemed to think there was no place in their lives for children. Children were burdens.
Leaving the doctor’s office, he didn't know whether to hold her hand or not, but finally decided he would. She’d made up her mind and he knew it. They walked in silence and he looked down, suppressing a smile of relief. “I'll schedule it for next week,” she said without looking at him, and he noticed she was wearing the same checquered dress she had on when they first met. At the station she got on the bus and he stayed behind.
Later that day, he got an email from his sister. There were pictures from her birthday party. Her three boys lined up from shortest to tallest, grinning in ridiculous sweatshirts with cartoon characters. He loved his nephews and they loved him, but he snapped the laptop shut, put on his shoes and coat and immediately left the house. Walking outside, he was struck by all the women and sometimes men pushing strollers, the kids playing in schoolyards. It was unusual maybe, for a man who didn’t want children, but he knew exactly the kind of father he would be. A father completely in love, filming, photographing, documenting their every move. He also knew the other kind of father he would be: demanding, dismissive, impatient. He thought of his own father, and of his perpetual disappointment with his “unambitious” son. He thought about having a child with a passion for jurisprudence. A child uninterested in Jim Jarmusch or Pasolini films, or Shostakovich’s string quartets. A stranger.
“If you decide on a pregnancy termination, I would suggest a surgical abortion,” the doctor informed them matter-of-factly.
“Surgical?” he interjected.
“Yes,” she answered, looking not at him, but at Valentina. “You’re 9 weeks pregnant, so a medical abortion at home would be risky. Also, you need to decide within the next few days; after that, medical abortion is no longer legal. Surgical pregnancy termination, however, is legal until your 12th week.”
This was her fault, Valentina thought. She’d wanted some time to reflect.
When she went in for the abortion a week later, she went alone. She said she preferred to go alone and he didn’t really protest and part of her resented him for it. This was his doing as much as hers. He’d been just as reckless, yet his body would remain unscarred. For him, there’d be no consent forms acknowledging the risk of anesthesia and the possible unforeseen cardiac and respiratory consequences. He wouldn’t need to deal with the bleeding that usually came after, the abdominal pain or the risk of infection. She’d looked the procedure up online.
The night before, he came over and cooked for her: fried rice with broccoli and tofu coated in sesame seeds. She watched him weigh the sesame oil and the rice wine, add just the right amount of lemon juice. She felt irrationally angry at his misplaced meticulousness and fought the urge to spit into the pot, spit on his careful demeanor. Now when it was too late.
As they sat down to eat, she asked:
“Would things be different if we had more money?”
“I don’t think so, not for me.” She speared her tofu.
“I brought something for us to watch,” he said. “I think you’ll like it. Fawlty Towers.”
She smiled. She’d downloaded the same show on her laptop.
“Did you know that Manuel, the Spanish waiter, changes nationality in the dubbed versions?”
“I know,” she said, “in Spain he’s Italian. I watched this show with my Dad, growing up.”
The next day, a tall and very cheerful nurse picked her up at the hospital reception desk. She chit-chatted while taking her pulse and blood pressure. “Oh, look at your skinny arms,” she said, as she tried to tighten the cuff around her biceps. Valentina laughed, despite herself. Later, in the operating room, she changed into the hospital robe and looked down at her toenails, which she’d painted red for the occasion. It was an odd thing maybe, putting on nail polish before an abortion, but she wanted to feel happy about something that day. The cheery nurse came back and rested her palm on her shoulder:
“It’ll be over in 20 minutes. We’ll get you something to eat and drink when you wake up. That’s something to look forward to, right?”
“What would you like? Coffee, tea, we can even get you a cappuccino or a renversé if you’d like.”
“An espresso would be fine,” Valentina said. She hesitated. “A double if possible.”
“Of course it is! Anything you like. The doctor will be with you in a bit.”