Tommy Wieringa – A Beautiful Young Wife
He rowed. She sat on the little bench at the back of the boat. There was almost no current. The fields turned gradually to woods. Old, tall trees, individuals with names of their own. As they went gliding between round, mossy banks, mansions shimmered through the greenery. private property, no mooring. He thought about the families with their mysterious names; they had not held up, the weight of all the possessions and history had broken their backs. The chronicles stood written in mold on the damp walls. Great lawyers and statesmen had stepped forward from their ranks, men who had shaped the nation and passed it along in good shape to the next generation. That permanency, that was over and done with. Their great-grandchildren had become bankers and writers, their lives dedicated to their own.
The green folded closed above their heads, the crowns shot through with arrows of prismatic light. He rowed soundlessly. Where the oars disappeared into the water there arose silky purls of black and silver. He had his shirtsleeves rolled up. She thought his arms were nice.
They slid back into daylight. On the shore they spread a blanket and lifted their faces to the late sun. Behind them was a cherry orchard, covered in green netting. He unpacked the basket and she asked: “Did you make all this yourself?” Little sandwiches. A salad, the dressing kept apart. “I love purslane,” he said. “It tastes the way earth smells.”
When they had eaten a bit she said, “Come on, let’s go buy some cherries.”
She wore a white cotton dress, her legs were tanned. At the entrance to the orchard, a woman in an apron was sitting in a little shelter. Edward bought a pound of cherries. They were crisp and sweet, the spring had been warm and dry. They walked back to the river and spit the pits as far away as they could.
They drank wine and talked about her sociology study that wasn’t going well, and about the trips he took, the conferences he attended. He looked at her. Did she realize that she was drinking a bone-dry Apremont, perfect for an occasion like this? She scratched her leg. White furrows appeared beneath her nails.
The evening after he comes up and talks to her in the cafe, she types his name in the search box. She sees pictures of him at international gatherings, apparently some bigwig in virology. He’s taller than the rest. She thinks a beard looks good on him. A few days later there’s an invitation in the mailbox, for an outing with the boat. That same day she responds with a postcard.
As darkness starts to fall he is the first to climb into the boat. He reaches out to her. She grabs his hand, takes a giant step. He rows back, the current stronger than he’d thought. In the darkness beneath the trees he wants to stay right in midstream and correct as little as possible, it needs to be perfect.
“Wait a minute,” she says after a while. She leans forward and places her hand on his. He stops rowing. “Hear that?” she whispers. “So quiet… Not even a bird.” Only the drops falling from the oars. Just before they touch the bank he brings the left oar alongside and lets it rest in the water. Standing up, she says: “Permission to leave ship?” They clamber up onto the bank and he ties the boat. She disappears between the tall, smooth trunks, her white hair fluorescent and enticing. A creature that brings misfortune to those who follow her song, deeper and deeper into the woods.
The English country garden belongs to the mansion further along, tucked away amid the trees. The windows are darkened, there is no sign of life. He’ll buy it for her and look at it from a distance each day, by nightfall, an illuminated beehive. That’s where he will live and make children with this glorious woman, one child for each room.
She excites him incredibly, but he doesn’t want to ruin it by being too greedy, by revealing his desperate longing. More than ever, he realizes now, being in love connects him with the boy he once was, with the first time, his mouth dry and his heart pounding, the first time of all first times that followed. He never married and was never with the same woman for long, he has always remained a collector of first times. Now he is forty-two and knows for a fact that everything has gone the way it’s gone only in order to bring him to this girl.
She laughs as she reappears among the trees, a light-footed, heathen goddess. “This is such a wonderful place,” she says. She speaks rather softly, as though the trees and the grass might hear. When she stands on tiptoe and kisses him, he has the confusing feeling that she went into the woods to consult with others of her kind, nymphs like her, gathered around the black reflecting pool.
They lie on the humid bed of grass and moss and make love slowly, with the timidity of bodies not yet fully acquainted. So soon, so soon, a voice inside him says. Her willingness makes him dizzy with happiness. The thrill at the back of his throat at her young body, a dash of light on the forest floor. Haste creeps into his movements, hunger. He forgets all he knows, hurried as a boy he licks her belly, her salty sex, in abandon, as though he has drunk too much. Later, when he drives into her and leans on his arms, she writhes beneath him. He thrusts into her, she laughs and says “I wondered when you’d get there”. Her experience surprises him, he has forgotten that people her age already know everything.
Their bodies, covered by the green half-light. Sweat that grows cold, semen contracting on skin. She lies on her side, in the shelter of his arm, his hands resting on her buttocks. “Too bad you don’t smoke,” she says.
“I’ve been told,” he says, “that artists feel like they’re further along than their predecessors. That they look at their work and think they’ve outstripped history. A feeling of… liberation. And triumph.”
“Why do you say that?”
He grins. “Liberation and triumph.”
She’s silent for a moment. “You mean, like now?”
“Nice guy,” she says. And, a little later: “And what about the next part?””
“Which part’s that?”
“The part where it never gets any better than this?”
When the opportunity presented itself, he took Ruth along to a medical ski conference in Aspen. At the airport a driver waited, holding aloft a sign. mr & mrs landauer. Not much later Ruth was standing at the window of their hotel room, looking out over the silent white mountains. Edward lay on the bed, his hands folded behind his head, happy as a gangster who has just covered his moll beneath a flurry of banknotes.
She turned. “Who’s paying for all of this?”
“GlaxoSmithKline,” he said.
She looked outside again. “We don’t have a clue,” she said to the glass. “We really don’t have a clue.”
In the morning he attended lectures and mingled with old acquaintances. Speakers appeared wearing their ski outfits. The last speaker of the day already had his goggles pushed up on his forehead and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to be brief, because of course you all want to get out on the slopes as quickly as possible…” Laughter from a thousand throats.
Edward and Ruth brunched on waffles with maple syrup, blueberries and poached eggs, and didn’t take the chairlift up until far past noon. Neither of them could ski very well. His joints bothered him. After a few runs, in the chairlift again, she laid her head on his shoulder and said that something like this, this fantastic view, would have seemed impossible to her when she was little and growing up in Bozum, where mountain landscapes sometimes appeared on the horizon – but those were clouds that disappeared after a while, leaving you in that green vastness with only a steeple here and there.
Even back then, she told him on the deck with a valley view where they sat that afternoon, the farmers had tended to keep their cows inside as much as possible, in the spring and summer too – only the rare dairyman let his cows out to pasture. They simply didn’t care. But her vegetarianism, the decisive moment, only came after she had slept over at a girlfriend’s house and heard the pigs being taken away in the middle of the night. Their screams as they were herded into the trucks was so unspeakably horrible that that night a deep awareness of the suffering of other species had been carved into her soul. An animal that screamed like that knew everything. It possessed a form of consciousness of its fate and experienced a fear for which no comfort existed. She had understood that wordlessly. That night, a boundary between her and all other things living on this earth had been lifted, and once that happened there was no going back.
There was no distance between the little girl who felt sorrow about these things and the woman who related her memories to him in the snow.
Edward had heard the story before, with slight variations and additions, he forgave her the repetition. He did his best to empathize with the life of the soul of a nine-year-old girl, but sometimes thought back in regret on the things that had vanished from his repertoire, the scaloppine al limone and the lamb chops with a crust of breadcrumbs and Parmesan, dishes with which he had impressed others.
A little more than two years ago, not long after they met, he had bought a few vegetarian cookbooks and adopted her dietary laws at home; she was resolute when it came to meat, but would eat shellfish by exception. An advantage was that he had lost more than twelve pounds during their first six months together. The hope that he would lose even more weight was in vain; he remained bobbing somewhere around two hundred and twenty, which was still a good forty pounds too much for a man his height.
Early on in her student days, Ruth had prepared macrobiotic meals in the common kitchen of a squat, but was quickly banished to waiting on tables when she proved to have no talent for cooking. On a few occasions they’d had friends from her old activist milieu over for dinner. Their vegetarianism had something barren and whiny about it, Edward thought, whereas hers seemed pure and noble.
By five that afternoon they were back on the valley floor. Ruth went to the hotel, he still had a few duties to perform. A poster session at the conference center. Snow still clinging to their shoes, gin-and-tonics in hand, the researchers strolled past the posters. Two young post-docs from his institute, the best of their batch, had arrived in Aspen the night before. The girl, unfortunately, was not very pretty; good looks were always an advantage. Long ago, when he was still a teaching assistant, he had stood in front of a poster at the Amsterdam research institute with a hockey girl from Laren – flattered, but a bit offended for form’s sake, she had said: “I’ve been offered three internships in the space of two hours!”
Later in the evening he and the post-docs walked from the conference center to the hotel. The session had gone well, a man from a pharmaceuticals company had been enthusiastic about their method to promote the efficient mutation of viruses, and there had been interest in the neutralizing antibodies that could wipe out a whole group of viruses at one swoop. It was the only research project Edward still took part in. The virus he was dealing with had originated in factory farming – minor outbreaks had been reported, the damage had remained limited. A few dead animals, the clearance of potentially infected stock – the who and the Food and Agriculture Organization worked quickly and efficiently. Doing research reminded him of his Amsterdam years, but to his regret it never assumed quite the same sense of urgency. Maybe he was just no longer capable of such feelings, because his heart was slowly guttering and dying.
They were already on their second round by the time Ruth came into the hotel bar. She was wearing a Norwegian sweater and shiny white trousers. He still didn’t feel, he realized, like she was really his. It was as though he hadn’t won her heart, but acquired her by theft. Something about her aroused a hunger in him, and excitement. There were women who never lost that, that sense of something blossoming and healthy. As they grew older their blonde hair only changed a few tints and they became gray-blonde, like Linda Evans in Dynasty. No one in their group, he realized, would know who Linda Evans was. Their youth had known other celebrities.
“You should take a couple of lessons,” the male post-doc was telling Ruth, “then it goes by leaps and bounds.”
“Literally,” his female colleague said.
Edward didn’t like seeing her with people her own age. It revealed what had happened in the time they’d been together: she had not made him younger, because of him she became older. In the company of her peers she took on her true age, light and sparkling, while he remained behind on his island in the distant future, grumbling through his whiskers.
When Ruth just didn’t get pregnant, they went in for a fertility test. Edward jerked off in a hospital room, with well-thumbed smut and a silent movie from the prehistory of pornography bouncing across the screen. He closed his eyes and thought about Marjolein van Unen popping the snaps on her lab coat, one by one. Her breasts, skin glistening with youth. She leans back on her stool, her back against the fume cupboard, and lets him go in…
The receptionist jotted down his particulars on a label, which she then stuck to the pot, so that his seed would not be taken for that of the North African who sat beside him, expressionless as a piece of fruit. A little later they passed each other, driving at a snail’s pace across the parking lot, the North African in a weathered Fiat, he in his Volkswagen Touareg. His sperm may have been as worthless as an immigrant’s, but his car was a cut above.
Only thirty-five percent of his cells were viable, the gynecologist told him a few weeks later, “more or less the percentage you’d expect from a truck driver”. The bulletin board behind the doctor’s back was hung with birth announcements. Joy, joy. He told Edward about his research, which focused on exceptionally fertile men. “If you want to find out what makes Porsches so good,” he said, “then you need to study Porsches, not Trabants.”
They left the office, after the gynecologist had told them about the future they could expect: a route that would lead them in mounting degrees of despair past the wonders of modern assisted-reproductive technology. Intrauterine insemination, in-vitro fertilization, and if even that didn’t work there was always icsi, intracytoplasmic sperm injection, in which the most lively sperm cells were fished out from among all the dead material and injected into the plasma of the egg cell. Two fertilized egg cells were then replaced in the uterus, which accounted for the preponderance of twins born after this treatment. In the parking garage she ran her index finger over his crotch and said: “A Trabant, honey-pie?”
Dutifulness crept into their sex life. They made love with awkward bodies, Ruth kept track of when they had to. Abstaining from alcohol on weekdays made him so grumpy that she would shout: “Well then open a bottle of wine, for Christ’s sake!”
In the evening, when they stood before the bathroom mirror, he saw a young woman and an old man. At age fifty every man has the face he deserves, Orwell had said, but Edward was convinced that that moment had already arrived on the cusp of his forty-eighth birthday. There were days when it looked as though he had never wiped the sleep from his eyes.
He and Ruth, he noted, had slid gradually into a tragic vortex of age. She had adapted to fit his years, rather than his personality. Yes, that’s how it had gone: she became older because of him, and he got even older than he was because of her. When naked in front of her, he was careful not to bend down from the waist, for then his belly and breasts seemed to separate from his frame and dangle in shapeless pleats; he would squat instead to pick up the cap of the toothpaste tube. He tried not to groan aloud when he did so.
Perhaps this was his pain, he thought, the pain the Buddha had called the principal source of suffering: the acute awareness of decay. With a wife his own age that would have been different, he suspected; they would have grown old together in dignity and closed their eyes discreetly to each other’s decline.
Ruth and he would not grow old together. He already was that, and would not, if the general demographic precepts held true, become old enough to see her do so. What he would have given to be able to return to the very beginning, before things like this began to torture him so. The triumph he had felt at that evening’s conquest! But now, six years later, he knew it was a victory that could never be claimed. What had started as a triumph was now an unequal battle.
Each morning he took a handful of pills, the benefits of which had been proven only barely or not at all. He was vaguely ashamed of his unreasoned belief that seaweed, ginseng and royal jelly could provide him with youth and strength, but put this in perspective by recalling how Herman Wigboldus had wiped his feet on the patch of lawn before his house.
For the rest he bore as little similarity to his old mentor as he did to Jaap Gerson, forceful personages both who felt that happiness was their just desert. Like paratroopers they dropped on life and took it by force. God, such nonchalant power, Edward thought – power he knew he could imitate but did not actually possess. He could seduce a woman with its intimation, but not convince her in the long run.
Ruth had been in the shower for a long time, a sign that she was getting ready to have sex with him. He wondered whether he was capable of summoning up the requisite lust. Maybe if he licked her first.
She rubbed a peephole in the steamy shower door and pressed her nose against it. He planted a kiss on it. “I’ll be there in a minute,” she said from beneath the hissing spray. He lay in bed, toying with his organ in the hope of instilling a little life into it already.
He remembered well what it was like to get a hard-on just by pointing at it, as opposed to that result of focused efforts which he had once heard Ruth described as “hardish”.
“The only head start I have on you,” he once told his students, “is that I know what it’s like to be you, while you haven’t the faintest idea what it’s like to be me. That’s our only advantage, otherwise the world is furnished to accommodate you people. We may hold the buying power, you possess the far more valuable capital of the future, whatever that may turn out to be.”
When Ruth slid in beside him a little later and whispered “sorry, love, you’re on duty again”, he cursed the fact, and not for the first time, that one could grow accustomed to a beauty even as exceptional as hers. Everything became humdrum, and what was habituation if not death’s gate? Her beauty didn’t lead inevitably to randiness; on the contrary, someone like Marjolein van Unen excited him with undeniably more urgency than his own wife, who was a thousand times prettier. And with that girl in mind – the finger he slid up her butthole – he was able to live up to his obligations.
As socio-psychological research at the University of Nijmegen had shown, the chance of a male being unfaithful during his wife’s pregnancy was twenty-seven times greater than at any other point in a marriage. Whereas a man contained himself as well as he could during his wife’s periods of illness and recovery – and, more generally, during the slow but certain process of the loss of beauty and vitality – during her pregnancy he went all-out. The periodic sexual obsession of his bloated wife frightened him, her protruding labia and excessively slimy cunt made him a bit nauseous. In addition, he experienced the clear and generally quite correct premonition that after the child was born his life would be more or less over – all the reason one could need to commit adultery.
After a departmental boat tour of Amsterdam’s canals and the River IJ, followed by drinks at Hoppe’s on the Spui, Edward decided not to take the night train back to Utrecht, but to go by taxi. Beside him in the back seat was Marjolein van Unen. As they kissed, she opened his zipper and jerked him off until he almost came. He had enough self-control to push her hand away in time. They had the cabby drop them at the central station and found a public toilet. Fishing a one-euro coin from his pocket, he thought: a euro to take a piss is fairly steep, but a euro for a fuck is a real bargain. He locked the door behind them and pulled off her trousers and panties. She sat down on the toilet bowl and leaned back, her hands resting on the lid, he unbuckled his trousers and knelt between her legs. That was how he fucked Marjolein van Unen for the first time, beneath the glow of purplish fluorescent tubes and amid the odor of stale piss. He came as though it was the very first time, and in a sense it was. She leaned against the back wall with a saintly smile. So this was it, he thought, this is what it was all about, this border-crossing from which there was no going back – the cunt of Marjolein van Unen, the center of the universe.
Ruth’s pregnancy went serenely, dreamily, she was bothered almost not at all by the discomforts she’d heard girlfriends talk about, the chronic nausea and inexplicable pains. She felt a bit preoccupied, but in a way that pleased her, as though she was barely in contact with the physical world. She converted her study into a nursery and went in there every day for a while to rearrange the little rompers, socks and caps, her movements charged with a glow of expectation for which she had no words. She told no one that it was going to be a boy, and that his name would be Morris. Even before the child was born, Edward already knew what it was to be part of the little conspiracy against the outside world that a family is. Not only Ruth was pregnant, the whole house was – it radiated out into the park and far beyond. Their principal conversations were reduced to friendly chitchat about who their son would be and which traits they hoped to recognize in him and which not. Life compacted to a cocoon, with room only for them. In the morning she remained behind in it and he left for the institute, where there awaited the encounter with Marjolein van Unen. She proved a discreet mistress, but still he had the daily feeling that he was suddenly light years removed from the padded little world he had just left. He had locked himself out and struggled against the thought that this was irreversible.
She was twenty-eight, the age Ruth had been when he’d met her. She had a two-room flat in the Kanaaleiland district; he asked her to put away the scented candles, because Ruth’s pregnancy had whetted her sense of smell.
“The things I do for you,” she said.
“I’m your boss.”
“Come on, then, boss.”
She was small and slim and limber. The hunger of thin women. She knew how to move her pelvis independently of the rest of her body and was what the Emperor Tiberius had termed a “sphincter artist”, in the sense that, straddling him and seemingly immobile, she could make him come by means of powerful, internal contractions. She did her best, she had taken courses in Tantra and applied the techniques she’d learned with a barely perceptible smile. He didn’t know exactly what she wanted from him. “What does your boyfriend think of all this?” he asked once. She raised a finger to her lips. “Sssh. Everything you say out loud comes back to you.”
Her cunt was well-proportioned and hairless, she knew no shame. Sometimes, on hands and knees in front of him, she would shake her hair out of her eyes, and it took a while before he understood what he was seeing. She acts as though there’s a camera running… the vain endowment of pornography.
“Have you got anything to drink?” he asked, and a few moments later she came into the room with a bottle of Metaxa she’d brought home from Greece. They lay back on the pillows, he held the glass in one hand and put the other hand between her legs, where it was open and wet. “I already knew everything,” he said. “The way you taste, how you feel, smell, I knew it all already.”
“How boring then,” she said.
“On the contrary.”
“Did you get a hard-on when you thought about me?”
“A thousand times over,” he said.
She was from Veghel, her father had died when she was seven. A month later there was a new man in the house. “My mother couldn’t stand being alone. She still can’t.”
When she was twelve the man had assaulted her, she kept silent but left home when she was only fifteen. She said those were “difficult times”, but meanwhile she had finished high school on her own and was admitted to the lab technicians’ school in Leeuwarden, as far as possible from her parental home.
“What year were you born in?” she asked.
“Fifty-eight,” he said.
Without a hint of surprise, she said: “Just like my mother. Which month?”
“That’s funny. Then you’re older than she is… A Taurus, I bet.”
The hard light of a late afternoon at the end of summer. The merciless hour. Moroccan boys were racing up and down the street on mopeds. With a tender gesture, she smoothed back a few of the long hairs sticking out of his eyebrows.
He saw framed photographs of her with a well-built young man. In one of them he was wearing a wetsuit, in the other a Dutch Marine Corps uniform. An embrace in some departure hall. “He’s stationed in Afghanistan,” she said. “We Skype almost every day.”
“When he comes back,” Edward said, “he’ll be a veteran. Thirty-something and already –“
His name was Michel, he had taken care of her when she was in a bad way. “Without him I wouldn’t be here. Not like this.”
Hanging across from the toilet was a poster with the text: “If nothing ever changed, there would be no butterflies.” When she massaged his feet, he began to weep. No one had ever touched his neglected feet like this.
“A lot of meridians come together in your feet,” she said. And: “If you ask me, you’re a lot more sensitive than you think.”
When he came home, he didn’t know whether he was Zhuangzi dreaming that he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuangzi, but at night in Wilhemina Park across the way there crept a man with an automatic rifle and camouflage stripes on his face, who forced his way into the house and opened fire on the double bed and the crib beside it.
He dreams about it for the first time during her pregnancy: how she leaves him and takes their child with her. He won’t find them back. He can go on living in Utrecht or move to Amsterdam, there is also a variation in which he returns to the village of his childhood. It makes no difference, he has been cut loose from everything. He can turn left or right, nothing keeps him from going in any direction whatsoever – only the way back, that has been cut off. Somewhere in the whitened world he stands, frozen, catatonic. He tried to pick up his life the way it was before he met her, but he has truly become too old for that. He will remain alone and occasionally, disappointed and filled with loathing, meet someone through a dating site, and sometimes he will burst out in tears at his memories. This is what he’s made of his life, a barrens stretching out on all sides, and of all the feelings he’s ever had only fear and confusion remain. Register this man as childless, a man who has known no happiness all his days…
The dream contained strikingly practical elements, he felt, which didn’t seem a part of the desolate space around him. Whatever the case, he awoke each time in the bed he shared with Ruth with such an overwhelming sense of relief that he swore then and there to better his ways. With a shiver of loneliness he crept up against her pregnant, sleeping body. He had made a mess of it, but things could still be set aright, it wasn’t too late. She never needed to know about it and he, if he only stopped now with all the things that lowered him, if he tied the loose ends together, would forget about it too in time. It would never have happened, or it would become like the memories of a book you’d read as a child, the mood of which you could still summon up but from which the events themselves had dissolved into thin air.
Translated by Sam Garrett