I was in my sixth month when the girl came knocking.
I’d gotten used to visits at home, almost as if I were sick. In a certain sense I was, a languid infirmity that had me spending the days doing nothing. The doctors prescribed a lot of rest. The challenge was to find new ways of resting.
People were always coming to see me. I’d learned how to receive them. People passed by to ask me how I was, give me advice, and bring me books on motherhood with covers so ugly I didn’t know where to hide them. If they didn’t bring me books, they came with something to eat. At times it was something potentially toxic, so along with their kindness came a heartfelt self-reproach: “How stupid of me! Tiramisu . . . raw eggs! How could I not have thought about it!”
The girl came empty-handed. Standing on the threshold, her hair down, her jeans tight, just the way I used to wear them before the visitors came to replenish my stock of maternity pants. I was constantly hiding stuff.
“Are you the professor’s wife?” the girl asked me.
“Girlfriend, um . . . partner,” I specified, even though it embarrassed me to use that term. It felt like I was putting on airs.
“I have to speak to you,” she said. The girl made herself comfortable on the sofa, her empty hands resting on her lap. More than resting, anchored: fingers tensed and knuckles rising white above the fabric of her jeans. Two bones stuck out from the points of her shoulders, two pins lodged in her skin. I sat down slowly on the sofa. My belly suddenly seemed out of place to me, a graceless and garish form I tried to conceal with my hands, which were also more swollen than usual from so much rest—giant hands, fused to my belly in a single mass, florid and vital. Hiding things again. Fortunately, the skeleton on the sofa didn’t seem to notice. Her eyes scoured the inside of the house, not suspiciously, but in a sensually empty manner, waiting to fill themselves up.
Neither I nor my boyfriend—the professor, as the girl called him—had been very good at decorating the house. He had been living there longer than I had, but my arrival hadn’t changed much. It wasn’t a female presence that was missing. Or maybe it was, but surely not mine. I was never interested in furnishings. I don’t even know the names of objects; or rather, I know the names, but not what they refer to—words that should evoke something but for me remain merely words: “valance,” “wainscot,” “credenza.” Anyway, it wasn’t an ugly home. When people came to see me, they always complimented it, and they seemed sincere. I know that’s what people always do. I guess they have to say something, but I did think the house was welcoming. At least I felt welcome there, even if I’d never done anything to give it more warmth, make it more familiar, more personal. I took it just as it was, as did my boyfriend when it was assigned to him—freshly cleaned—by the university. The walls were painted white, the furniture spartan but comfortable, an armchair for reading, a study where he worked. It was a house where I managed to rest well.
Every once in a while he said to me, “You should buy some knickknacks.” But even that was nothing but a word. What does a knickknack look like?
When he sent me the photos of the house to entice me to join him, I made the same assessment as other people. “Looks really cute.” “You’ll like it,” he kept saying. And in fact, I did like it. So the girl could look around all she wanted, but she wouldn’t find anything strange to feed her gaze.
“Would you like some tea?” I asked her.
It had become my specialty. I spent a lot of time choosing tea at the market and a lot of time preparing it. Before I got pregnant, it had never occurred to me to think of tea as a possible beverage. Or maybe before moving here. Now it’s not just a beverage but an experience, an intellectual emptying, another act of abandonment to accompany my state of infirmity. The Miden market was full of tisanes, loose dried herbs sniffed from burlap bags or metal containers, aromatic teas rich in history, teas that spoke of distant places. I gave myself up docilely to an idea of exoticism that had never seduced me before—but if maternity manuals were the alternative, then submission was all right by me.
“Whatever,” the girl said.
I prepared the tea, placed it on the table between us.
“Is green jasmine OK?” I asked her.
“Fine,” she said.
The girl’s brusque manner was beginning to irritate me. It wasn’t up to me to explain to her how much life history could be hidden in a cup of tea. Maybe it was her youth that kept her from being contaminated by all that had come before her. And yet she wasn’t much younger than I was, even though the gap had opened more substantially as soon as I’d become the professor’s girlfriend, or once my womb had borne proof that history existed. But the girl, despite her dismissive comments about the tea, had come to talk about the past.
“I was a student of the professor’s,” she said to me.
“OK,” I responded to show I could keep up.
“Has he ever spoken about me?”
“Frankly, I don’t know. You’re not the only girl to have been his student.”
“I was more than that,” she explained.
It was clear what she wanted to tell me. I pretended not to understand.
“The professor and I had a thing,” she continued.
We’ve all had things, I wanted to say. No. Unfortunately, that’s not true. I thought of that reply many minutes later, and the mere fact that I didn’t think of it quickly enough made it seem particularly brilliant. I spent a few seconds meditating on the girl’s words without saying anything. Her tone seemed to suggest exactly that suspended atmosphere, and for lack of a quick retort, I followed her lead.
“Is there a reason I should know this?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “That’s what I’m here for.”
My boyfriend and I had met fourteen months earlier in Miden. I was on vacation, and he had moved here some time before that. We were both from the same country. We spent two weeks together. It was love at first sight, or perhaps it was the complicity of two kids a little off balance in a foreign land, even though that may be a romantic way of putting it, considering that he had already been living in Miden for a while, with the prospect of a solid future and his schedule already planned for the new academic year. I could have sincerely claimed culture shock, as I really was a tourist, with no goal at the time and nothing to do either in Miden or elsewhere. So as we were toking up in a tent under the starry sky, it was more the last drops of his vacation we were sharing than the tension of heading into the unknown. And yet, I had cried on one of those nights, my cheeks wet with tears as he spoke of all we could have been. He knew I had nothing to lose, because I had almost nothing. Or at least that’s what I liked to think back then. I liked reciting the part. My studies were finished, and all I had were emails from friends who had already left home: I lived in a country you could only leave. Everyone was bailing out. Whoever stayed was infectious. Every day the papers were talking about the Crash, counting emigrants like evacuees, fencing in the survivors. It seemed as if natural disasters were in a period of remission: no earthquakes, hurricanes, or floods. There were no parasites defoliating the trees, no heat waves cracking the parched earth. All they talked about was us, and it made little difference whether we were fifteen or forty. They asked us to have faith. “The worst is over,” the politicians said, and then sent their children and money to the other side of the world. The truth is, the worst couldn’t be over, because it had never really come. As long as we were children, we would remain children, our mothers and fathers would take care of us. Once I got back home, when I looked at the photos of Miden again, I was convinced that I could see the possibility of life in our idiotic gazes under the Milky Way. And so I left, too. I moved to Miden, trusting that gaze, in which someone—myself, not long after—would have seen nothing more than pot-addled eyes.
I poured some more water in my still-full cup.
“The professor raped me,” the girl said.
I have no idea what it means to desire a child. I don’t think I desired one; when I found out I was pregnant, that sort of thought had already lost importance. He was there, like I was there. We existed together. The feeling was stronger than desire.
When I moved to Miden, my boyfriend and I made love every day, several times a day, without protection, as they say, since it was clear that our encounter was based on recklessness. Our idiotic gazes under the starry sky were also contemplating the creation of new living beings. Caution and fear belonged to the country we had left. Down there, people died of protection. They died because they held back. Because they were depressed. Because they were afraid. Down there, no one seemed capable of procreating. But we were, we who had gone away, yes, without a second thought. Miden was full of babies.
I looked at the girl. Her skinniness looked threatening, the stripped carcass of an animal come to wreak havoc at home.
“When?” I asked, as if the most important thing were to establish a convincing chronology. But in some ways, it was truly important.
“It happened more than once,” she said. “In a certain sense, always, all throughout our affair.”
“I meant how long ago,” I specified.
“Two years ago.”
“Would you like some more tea?”
“My cup is full.”
I didn’t have a great appreciation for music. When I was at home, it never occurred to me to put on an album. Here, visitors never brought me CDs. My boyfriend tried to educate me, but I was too scattered, I couldn’t remember the names of the pieces. So when I got up to put on some music, I didn’t know what to choose. I was afraid the girl would judge me for a poor choice. She had the air of someone more tuned in to these things than I was. But she was simply stunned that I’d gotten the idea to put on some music. Maybe that’s all I was really looking for. Her dismay. I was so incapable of making a good impression that I chose a best hits of the ’90s.
“Why have you come to tell me now?” I asked. “I didn’t even know him two years ago.”
The girl’s gaze finally filled up with something; I believe “scorn” is the best word to define it. Even her body seemed more vigorous. She swayed her head back and forth as if it had accrued a weight she couldn’t balance.
“Because he was never punished,” she responded.
“Did you report him?” I asked.
“No. I couldn’t.”
“Because I didn’t know then. Now I know.”
The girl’s fingers didn’t even graze the cup I’d placed in front of her. That had been my only kind gesture up until then. The cup alone cost more than her shoes.
“What is it that you now know?” I asked.
“That I was subjected to violence.”
When I found out I was pregnant, the sky was white.
The sky is always white in Miden, which makes it hard to give memory a background. But the light changes. That day the light was ugly. There were whole mornings that had trouble impressing themselves on my memory; what was left was only the feeling of that absence, the border between day and night crumbling. I’d spoken with someone at the market, but what did we say to each other? Were there any fish with eyes more alive than usual? A pumpkin I would have liked to buy? I no longer remembered anything.
But the girl wasn’t talking about repressed memories. What a shame. Because it had become one of my favorite subjects since I arrived in Miden. I wrote many emails about what I was repressing. My friends wrote me impassioned platitudes about how important it is to burn bridges with the past. It was a continual severing of ties, as if we all had a particularly wild and noteworthy past. I get the impression that you can deal with all sorts of conversations by bringing up the idea of clean breaks. You never get anywhere, so you can go on like that for a while, which gives me all the time I need to put the water on the burner for another cup of tea. The fact is that the girl wasn’t interested in talking about repressed memories, and she hadn’t even taken a sip of her tea.
“How did you find out?” I asked the girl.
“I understood,” she responded.
“OK. How did you come to understand?”
“Thanks to the Commission.”
Miden is organized by Commissions. Many scholars come here to analyze the workings of the Commissions. It had started with talk about politics from the ground up, telluric thrusts pressing against the bowels of the earth. This was after the Crash, which, like every Crash, seemed to have come from dizzying heights. My boyfriend hadn’t participated in the creation of the Commissions, he moved here later, “but you can still breathe that air,” he wrote me in an email. There have been many airs I still haven’t had time to breathe, other airs that disperse and consume themselves as I try to write this. When I arrived in Miden, the Commissions already existed, and outside the Commissions there was nothing. If you’re a citizen of Miden, you’re a member of a Commission. If you don’t want to choose one, then one will be assigned to you. I belong to Organic Pesticides. When scholars come to Miden to analyze how the Commissions work, they breathe what’s left of the air that preceded them and they go back home with the same disappointed admission: “It’s a mechanism that can only work in a small community.” The inhabitants of Miden are convinced that the reason lies rather in their DNA—a particularly virtuous and creative genetic structure. They don’t know how to explain it any other way. The Crash had brought whole countries to their knees, whereas Miden emerged from the deep waters with the splendor of a Venus. When I was thinking about writing an article comparing various approaches to the Crash, the director of the department where my boyfriend worked said, “We didn’t roll up our sleeves. We chose to put on a new dress, more beautiful, without any stains.” The inhabitants of Miden like to speak in images. Poetic inspiration is another characteristic of their DNA that they like to promote. At dinner there’s always someone who brings up the evolution of their stock from the time their ancestors recited sagas. They feel like descendants of the Myth, like the gods are still there, watching them excitedly from the white sky. I see no difference between the scholars’ conclusion and a purely genetic explanation. The Commissions work in a small community, and Miden is a small community, one so jealous of its own DNA that outsiders like me are welcomed enthusiastically, as long as they don’t go beyond the limits decided by the Welcome Commission. I never wrote that article about the Crash, or any other. Since I’ve been in Miden, I’ve written only emails; the poetic inspiration has yet to contaminate my DNA, even though the emails were quite pretentious.
The girl handed me a letter from the Commission and crossed her legs, as if the gesture had finally conferred upon her the status of an adult. She raised her cup, drinking her first sip of lukewarm tea.
“Please, take your time reading it,” she said.
“Now?” I asked, suddenly feeling accused.
“Yes,” she confirmed.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to understand everything—”
“There’s the version in the international language,” she interrupted me carefully.
I turned off the music and went into my room to read. The girl watched me go and gestured with her head in a way that could have signaled assent or compassion.
The letter was three pages long. My boyfriend and I never had any problems talking about sex. In the beginning of our relationship, that was part of the excitement. I was more talkative than he was, though I tended to alter my voice. I either spoke in a falsetto, like a 12-year-old, or with a hoarse voice. Not that we said anything special. I would tell him about past experiences, more or less true, to make myself more slutty. Or I’d pretend it was my first time, or ask him to block my arms, blindfold me, or come in my face, stuff like that. He even wanted me to pretend I was one of his students. “So, what is it that you mean by numen?” he’d say, and I would look at him like I was totally vapid, and he’d play the part of the strict and perverted professor. He would slap my ass, punish me. He would sodomize me with some pseudo-didactic object. I know, when you’re recounting the story, it seems ridiculous that someone can get turned on by that stuff, but it worked. So I wasn’t surprised to read the list of things my boyfriend and the girl had practiced, which the Commission drafted. I don’t deny that I was disturbed to read the details, not so much because they were about my boyfriend fucking another woman, as much as they were the same as our fucks. The only difference was, she didn’t need to pretend that she was a student, since she was. My boyfriend was called “the Perpetrator” and the girl “the Subject.” On the last page of the letter, the list ended and a diagnosis appeared. TRAUMA no. 215.
In Miden there was an apposite Commission created expressly to evaluate the pertinence of a determined trauma, and it was subdivided into subcommissions according to the clinical scope. The exam for becoming a fully fledged citizen of Miden also included a deeper knowledge of the Traumatic Code. I hadn’t yet begun to study for the exam, as I still had more than a year before the cutoff date. So, in all honesty, I had no idea what TRAUMA no. 215 was.
When I came back to the living room, the girl had gotten up and was wandering around, her cup in her hand. She stopped in front of a photo of me and my boyfriend taken during the summer we met. I don’t usually hang photos, but that one was particularly beautiful. Or rather, that’s what you’re led to believe when you come out well in a photo.
“Is that you?” the girl asked, as if twenty years had passed since the picture was taken.
“Yes,” I answered. “I had longer hair.”
She stood there staring at it, nodding her head, almost as if she wanted to ascertain my degree of self-indulgence.
“Seeing a photo of the professor makes me uncomfortable,” she said.
“You’re in his home,” I pointed out.
I went back to sit, with the hope that she would follow suit.
“Listen,” I said to her, “I’m starting to feel uncomfortable too. I’ll confess, reading that letter was not pleasant—”
“Yes, but it was necessary . . .”
“You’re one of the witnesses.”
The Commission had prepared a questionnaire about my relationship with my boyfriend. The girl had asked only that I be sincere, and she gave me the email address of the director of the Commission in case I had any questions for her.
“If you like,” she said with sudden kindness, “I’ll tell her to come see you.”
I knew the director. My boyfriend had introduced me to her shortly after I’d moved. In the beginning he was rather worried about my poor social skills. Or maybe he was just channeling everyone else’s fear. In Miden, nobody had anything against two hearts sharing the same hearth—or even one solitary heart. And yet you felt the pressure of a greater, more generous idyll: the Miden Dream, which claimed a tribute of universal love from you. But I never joined any of the spontaneous groups they organized to spend free time together. Even my boyfriend belonged to only two groups, and the pool group was not his choice, since the university had given him a free pass. The other was the wine lovers’ group. I would have gone too, but, for one thing, I didn’t want to seem so attached to him, and for another, the wine in Miden was undrinkable. There were also tea lovers, and every morning I woke up with the sincere intention of signing up. But I lacked a certain ease. I still spoke the international language; it seemed a bit senseless to enter a circle of enthusiasts and not be able to catch the nuances and secrets.
In any case, my boyfriend introduced me to the director “before anyone knew better.” This has become an overused expression in my life since the girl’s visit. From that day on, it seemed that everyone knew better. I wouldn’t say that the director and I had become friends, but we did do some activities together. On Thursdays, for example, we went to the movies. Neither of us had particularly brilliant commentary on the movies we saw, so we just kept repeating how pleasant it was to have that weekly date, to remember with insincere nostalgia the time of projectionists, and once in a while to complain about someone whispering during the movie. One afternoon we even went to the steam bath. We discreetly examined each other’s nude bodies. Mine was essentially hairless apart from my pussy; hers was the exact opposite. Then we lay down on the couches at the entry, reading our horoscopes aloud from the gossip magazines and trying to amuse ourselves. I didn’t catch the funny bits, because I only understood half of what was being read, so I wound up laughing more than I should have.
After missing our appointment two Thursdays in a row, we stopped seeing each other. If we happened to meet on the street, we reassured each other that we would call soon. Neither of us did. Many of my relationships in Miden were like that. I guess a lot of relationships any place in the world are like that. The only inconvenience is that in Miden, you often meet people by chance.
That said, there was no reason to send an email to the director, because the questionnaire was very simple, too simple. I would have liked some more insidious questions, to pause a few seconds with the pen in my mouth to follow a thought, the way I did when I tried to write. In fact, I was almost offended by such an inane questionnaire. It made me feel like an imbecile. Let’s not aggravate a pregnant woman, the questions seemed to suggest. So I thought about writing the director an email. I’d tell her that the sight of her hairy body in the steam bath was disgusting, that I forced myself to look at her because it would have been embarrassing not to. That the idea of her toxins mistakenly attached to my skin revolted me. That the smell of her breath while she was lying next to me reading the horoscope—even though mitigated by the ginger tea they offered us—reeked of rotten cabbage. That if she really wanted to know, I found the memory of that afternoon much more repugnant than the image of the girl taking it up the ass from my boyfriend.
—Translated from the Italian by Stash Luczkiw