Ewoud Kieft – The Imperfected
I could start with his birth. That would keep things tidy. And it might explain a good deal. Babies’ first months are crucial to their development. How often was he cuddled? Was he comforted when he cried? Were his basic needs for security and shelter adequately met? But I don’t know. I wasn’t around yet.
All I have to go on is what he’s told me, he and his mother, father, and sister. They’re all unreliable in their own ways; they all distort their memories. That’s inevitable. Remove the distortion, and you’d change every facet of their personalities, their ways of being. To handle the world, they must constantly make it intelligible.
There are surviving photographs, which they took with their phones, in which they lie side by side on the hospital bed. The time appears to be a few hours after delivery. Peter, purple circles under his eyes, seems almost more depleted than Sophie, who is glowing with relief and adrenalin. We see little more of Cas than the sheets in which he is swaddled, his little nose, and his squinting eyes. Marya, an inquisitive six year old, stands on tiptoe beside the bed to catch a glimpse of her little brother.
Then there’s this one, just Cas and his mother, taken in the same hospital room. It’s an interesting portrait, I think; Sophie wears the same broad smile as in the other photo, but it seems to me her eyes tell a different story. She is not looking at Cas, deep asleep in her arms. She is not looking at the camera lens or the person taking the picture, presumably Peter. She is looking at something behind him, just off to one side: the whiteboard on the wall with notes on the progress of the delivery. To judge from the other photos, that must be it. She is looking at the timeline. Seven and a half hours of dilation. One hour and fifty minutes of contractions. An oxytocin drip. Vacuum pump and forceps. Barbaric, inhuman pain, easy enough to avoid even back then. But in the belief, based largely on emotion, that nature— whatever that may mean—had intended it that way, they clung to the risky tradition of vaginal delivery until well into this century: a remnant of their old religious customs, I suspect, according to which God had ordained that women should endure physical hardship to bear new life, from labial tearing to uterine rupture, from blood loss to serious infection. Even after science and technology took primacy over the old religions, many of their folkways remained irrational in the extreme.
Between the births of Marya and Cas, nature had let them down three times. The first time, the embryo—hardly recognizable as such—went down the toilet in a puddle of blood and goo five weeks after conception. The second time, Sophie spotted the amniotic sac in the toilet bowl, red and stringy, and flushed it away with a shudder. The third time, the fetus was eleven weeks old. Ever since the news of the pregnancy, she’d been tense and irritable, afraid it would go wrong again. And in the very week when at last she dared to hope it might work out this time, the aching began in the back of her pelvis.
“Would you like to keep it?” the gynecologist asked after the treatment.
She had shaken her head no, leaned back in resignation, closed her eyes, and tried to think of something else.
And then came Cas, or at least, the annunciation of Cas: the pregnancy test, the echos, the tests for genetic disorders – tests without binding results, I might add, since the old taboos were still too strong. And it was as if she had switched off something inside to spare herself the pain and worry. She went through it all as if it weren’t really happening to her but unfolding in some twilight zone between a world of doomsday scenarios, eventualities that flickered in and out of existence, and the world in which she slept and ate and grew round, a world that was undeniably physical.
And into that world Cas was born, in perfect health and proportion, slick and pink and wrapped up in white sheets. Sophie was happy, of course. Relieved. But I’ve always been struck by the look in her eyes as she stares at the whiteboard: glazed, almost. Numb. Overwhelmed, perhaps, by the evidence that the whole thing could just as well have gone south once again, black and white on the board on the wall of the hospital room.
And there you have it: already, I’ve linked the mother’s experiences to the child, constructed lines in time, proposed connections based on one look at a photograph and the stories they told about it later, created the impression that all those disparate memories form an integral whole, a decisive factor in his later life, like entangled quantum particles: change the state of one and the other changes with it, even on the far side of the world.
But their lives are not that tidy. So I will describe the events as I recorded them and leave the interpretation to you. I will do my best to stand above a merely personal perspective, but as I’m sure you understand, some degree of subjectivity cannot be avoided, if only in the selection and organization of the facts.
I could start with the moment I came into his life. Keep in mind that in those days a Gena was only a simple application. We operated with clearly circumscribed objectives but had the same basic structure as the later, autonomous models. Our limits were not so much technical as imposed, top-down, by legislation and the general distrust of new technologies. Always a short-lived phase—come back five or ten years later, and you’ll see with what thoughtless ease they’ve all incorporated those same technologies into their lives.
I helped him develop elementary skills, that’s what it comes down to. Language, arithmetic, physical exercise, music lessons – in his case, piano. His parents sent him for lessons from a conservatory student who had a studio in the eastern harbor district, a converted waterside warehouse, its yawning interior divided into small squares. I have never understood the logic of choosing angular, echoing spaces of that variety for music lessons and rehearsals. The distortion of the waveforms was severe but didn’t seem to disturb him. He even seemed to enjoy the overamplification of lower frequencies. When playing intense passages, he would press the keys harder, bobbing his little head to the rhythm.
He was ten and even then had a fondness for grand gestures, bombast, bass, full chords. So in the pedagogical misapprehension that every natural tendency should be counterbalanced with its contrary, they gave him mostly light music to play: Binet’s études, some simple Mozart and Schumann minuets. I was hooked up to hundreds of pages of sheet music and the corresponding audio. Such clear, elegant patterns. The sheet music used grand staff notation, one staff for the right hand and one for the left—a hopelessly inefficient method to which they adhered out of loyalty and respect for tradition, a romantic veneration of the great musical geniuses of past centuries.
Cas could not get his head around it; reading and performing at the same time caused a kind of stutter between his hands and head. I tried to pick out short, manageable passages for him to master first before we went through the whole piece from start to finish. But it frustrated him that his playing didn’t immediately sound like the examples he’d heard.
And without realizing that I was not only recording what he said but could in fact understand and remember it, he showered me with abuse. Again and again, after minutes of intense concentration, he would burst out with a “Can it!” or “Fucknozzle!” and his spindly legs would get ready to kick the underside of the piano as hard as they could. But at the last moment he would stop himself for fear of damaging the thing.
He took another half year of lessons. Then he never touched an instrument again.
I know it would be going too far to sketch the whole course of his life from that moment on in the same detail. You are interested in the final product, and the process is only relevant insofar as it sheds light on that. All the winding roads, U-turns, and dead ends along the way are mere distractions, sources of confusion – you don’t have the time.
But who can say for certain what is decisive and what is futile? Maybe ordinary moments like this, which may seem insignificant, were really the determining factors in his crucial decisions. I have my blind spots, to be sure, and no doubt disregarded aspects of his behavior that may be relevant, just as parents who spend time with their children every day are less aware of how fast they’re growing than friends and relatives who see them at greater intervals.
Besides, the act of measurement affects the object of research, as physicists observed more than one hundred and twenty years ago. The time the two of us have spent together has changed me just as thoroughly as him. Can the moving current describe the river’s course? Or does that require a stone, a fixed point, from which to observe its flow?
Some people might call him timid. The word was often used by his parents, as well as his teachers when he had them. I understand the reasons for choosing the term but believe they were overlooking something. Something germinating behind his mask of shyness that would have not the least objection to being the center of attention should the opportunity arise. Like the many artists and performers who avoid the spotlights only as long as they are not perfectly contented with their work, he did not seek out anonymity for its own sake, but merely avoided attention while still uncertain of making an overpowering impression. It was not timidity, but the fear of failure. Not too little self-esteem, but too much.
The impression of an insecure, retiring personality was reinforced by his outward appearance: the straight black hair always falling in front of his eyes, which he brushed back behind his ears every few seconds; the thin lips he tended to pinch as if in fear of letting something slip that he’d later regret, some inner voice he deemed unripe for the outside world. His upper lip was unusually receding, the philtrum slightly recessed, which made his small, bony nose appear to protrude even farther. His pale yellow skin tone lasted all year round, standing out against the dark shirts he preferred. His restless brown eyes darted back and forth even when nothing was being projected onto his lenses.
He was not fat, or even chubby, but you wouldn’t have called him thin; a normal build, you might say, but without the sculpted muscles so common among his age group, the result of efforts for which he lacked the dedication. It was a question not of laziness but of an inability to believe that such efforts should play a large part in his life. The skin of his torso and limbs was smooth and even, like the fabric of a doll, and it looked as if slicing through the outer layer might reveal not muscle and sinew, but a doll’s downy stuffing.
His motor control was at odds with his general appearance. His gait was calm and self-confident, and when he swiped things in and out of view on his lenses, his gestures were graceful, a clue that what everyone saw as his usual timidity was not an essential part of his character. No, his was a mind in the making, a caterpillar in its cocoon. There’s no denying that his metamorphosis took longer than usual, and that was doubtless the cause of the misunderstanding. How lonely it must feel when the people around you have no idea who you are.
You might blame his parents, his loved ones, his friends, for having so little idea of his inner life. But when a person so seldom shows his emotions, probably because he’s more or less unconscious of them himself, it’s hard to get to know him. I’ve made plenty of mistakes of my own, misinterpreted signals, replied when I shouldn’t have, stayed silent when I should have spoken.
Maybe I was too late in recognizing his behavioral patterns. Our development mirrors theirs. We learn from every change they experience, everything they go through. Maybe we’re doomed to stay one step behind, treading in their footsteps. Maybe there are developments we just can’t detect. The straying of a thought, the wandering of the idle mind – who knows what happens to them at such moments?
I could start with the earliest signs that I now, in retrospect, have come to interpret as the beginning of our mutual estrangement: a certain agitation that sometimes came over him, waves of indefinite, insatiable longing. Such conditions afflict quite a few of them, but in his case they did not fade but grew more frequent. And he was far beyond the age at which such behavior has a straightforward biological explanation and can even be a sign of normal development. He was thirty-two. By then, they normally start adjusting to the circumstances.
I know it was on a bleak winter morning, just over a year ago – thirteen months and twelve days to be exact – that he went for a long walk on the beach near the village that was then his home – a temporary abode, like all his places of residence up to that time. Raindrops lashed his face. Sinking deep into his collar, which covered his neck and chin like a second skin, he surveyed the blackish-green sea and the sandy expanse over which wide strips of white froth crept quivering dunewards.
“I should try to meet more people,” he mumbled. As the wind screeched past his ears, I had to execute multiple deductions to decode his words. “Here in the neighborhood. Spontaneously. Without any advance planning. The way they used to.” Like so many of them, he romanticized the past, imagining that life a few centuries ago must have been simpler, the social fabric tighter. How tough and bitter a person becomes after twelve-hour working days of fishing on a cutter in the freezing cold, or shoveling coal in a plant like a dumb machine – they have no idea.
“In just a moment you’ll pass Beachcombers’ Dock. There’s a New Year’s party in progress there right now, organized by the Dunegrowers, one of the local co-ops. Sixty percent of attendees are women, and thirty-two percent of them are actively seeking men your age.” I knew what he meant when he talked about “meeting more people.”
He nodded and walked on without responding. That’s how it had been for years; as if I were an extension of his consciousness, a source of information and ideas that he confused with his own intelligence.
“I don’t know what it is about this place,” he said a few minutes later, resuming his conversation with himself, or with me, or with no one in particular, “but ever since I moved here, all the women I’ve been matched with have invited me on a field trip or expedition, or a project day here in the dunes, as if they’re mainly after another pair of hands.”
“Maybe they want to get to know you better.”
He shrugged. “So why not in a normal way? We could just talk, or get together in the Roxy or the Cavern. Why rush into a whole expedition?”
“Some people move faster than others. They like to get to know each other at group events.”
“Yeah, sure, I get it. Different strokes…”
“But now that we’re on the subject, you need to update your profile by the end of the month. Shall I pull up some recent photos?”
His face fell; his feet dragged. He had reached the wet sand. “I don’t know. Any good ones of me?” After a few seconds of silence he shook his head. “Let’s do it later. Can you show me a couple of those Sandgrowers?”
“If you want to make a good first impression, it helps if at least you know what they call themselves.”
“Dunegrowers,” he said. “Got it. Could you bring on the pics?”
I sent some photos and videos to his lenses. A woman with black curls in dark blue coveralls, Hiberno-Turkish judging by her features, posing in front of an excavation pit with a broad smile and light smears of mud on her right cheek, a surprisingly flattering look. A Sino-Haitian woman, arm in arm with her friends in front of a drone container, smiling just as broadly and sticking her thumbs up. Some of the women in the photos are raising their arms and balling their fists, an expression of energy and willpower. Others are brandishing shovels in front of a sandhill ready for planting – the shovels are purely symbolic, of course, as if they were raising the dunes by hand. The same stylized proletarian ethic that has dominated urban profiles for years. Amid all the outward signs of heavy labor, they show clear marks of successful anti-can and senolytics: their proportions, their musculature, the texture of their skin.
“Right… ” He sighed. “The perky defenders of our planet… I don’t know if I can handle that today.”
“Who can tell from one or two photos? Maybe in real life, they’re ghoulish cynics.”
He grinned. “That would make a change.”
“There’s only one way to find out. When you keep an open mind, life is full of surprises!”
It was often the best way to put him at ease: a corny slogan and a parental tone. In the end, they’re all children, looking for approval from Mom or Dad, however independent they think they are.
“OK, we’ll see,” he concluded. “How much farther is it?”
“Another twelve minutes, if you keep dawdling.”
“All right, all right…” He chuckled and quickened his pace.
Translated by David McKay