Sunday, March 30, 2014

Requiem for an Unborn Child by Fred Skolnik

Fred Skolnik's moving stream of consciousness about a father's longing for his aborted child.

After the abortion Claire had been depressed for a few weeks and it was clear that she blamed Justin for it, though neither of them had been ready for another child, and in any case the marriage had been on the rocks for a while. Claire told Justin very bitterly that she would have had the child if things had been different between them and that stung him though he really thought they would be better off with just the two they had, two boys aged four and six, wondering at the same time if the child might not have been a girl, which would have pleased him, so he began to think it was and came to regret having lost her.

She would have been two now, he would think, or six, or ten, and he could imagine her in the room with them, playing perhaps with the boys and saying adorable things as children often did, a child with a full head of curly hair and quite self-possessed. He could feel her absence when the four of them were together, he and Claire and the two boys, and could sense the point at which she would have entered the conversation, and could see her whole life unfolding, all the things she might have become and what she would have given them, and it was hard for him to accept the fact that she was not there when she might have been.

Justin and Claire managed somehow to patch things up between them. If the marriage was without real passion, they at least accommodated one another and were really too tired to look elsewhere for satisfaction. Justin was in marketing and put in long hours; Claire worked till two o'clock as a receptionist at a busy law firm and then had to run home to greet the boys and get the shopping done and supper on the table. Generally they watched TV in the evening and Justin at least had a pretty empty feeling when he went to bed because the days were like grains of sand now slipping through his fingers and leaving nothing in their wake. He said to Claire once, "Sometimes I wish we'd had that child," and knew it was a mistake to have said it when he saw the look on her face. He thought he knew her very well but had to wait until she spoke or acted or made a face to know what she was thinking.

The idea of the unborn child began to grow in his mind and he could not stop wondering how she would have turned out and how she might have acted in certain situations that came up in the family as when Rick, the older boy, said his bicycle had been stolen from the front lawn and he imagined her saying, "Maybe you left it behind the house," and the way Rick looked at her impatiently and Claire saying, "Let's look anyway," and sure enough there it was and Claire and Justin hugged her and she was the hero of the day though Rick pointed out with the wisdom of a twelve-year-old that they would have found it anyway.

Justin imagined her filling a space that belonged to her alone, a space in the world that she had seized in the manner of all existing things, and you had to take her presence into account, you had to walk around her if she was in the way or consider her feelings in matters that concerned her as you would not have had to if she wasn't there. She would have been among them on so many occasions and would always have had something to say, as when Justin's father died and she consoled him, saying, "He's in heaven now," and Justin began to cry and she held him the way Claire sometimes held her when she was upset. All these moments would have become memories in the course of time and Justin would have carried them in him through the years and they would have created little centers of feeling that otherwise would not be there, would have given his own life a dimension it did not have. She would have made a difference in all their lives, in Claire's too, and in the boys' lives because maybe having a sister would have softened something in them and made them somehow better men though Justin realized that things didn't always turn out that way; often there was tension among siblings that may not have been resolved in later years, and Justin thought he would have sided with his daughter if it came to that because he was certain she could do no wrong and would have been an angel really with a sunny disposition while the boys would continue to be intractable. He imagined her in a dressy coat with a belt and buckle in the back and a ribbon in her hair and white stockings and shiny black sandals walking between them on a Sunday morning and the boys running up ahead, and she would be so happy to have all of their attention and that moment would perhaps fix itself in her mind just as such moments fixed themselves in Justin's mind and come to stand for the time she was happier than she had ever been, and this memory would be part of time and history and all the things that had ever been.

Justin contemplated the absence of the child in their lives and in the world, so many spaces without her presence, so many moments that might have been filled by her voice, her smile, her tears. It was as simple as turning a garment inside out to imagine her there instead of not there, as though even in her absence she inhabited some undisclosed dimension of the world, a world that might also be turned inside out and would have been if they had let her live. Then she would occupy a part of their minds too, becoming a link in the chain of thoughts that unfolded unexpectedly when you saw perhaps a child in the street or a warm breeze touched your face, and Claire might remember how she liked a certain color and buy her a new schoolbag or her own umbrella and she would jump up and down and that moment too would become part of their lives. Everything would have been different, Justin thought. It was as if the world would have been tilted slightly and everything seen from a different angle and instead of going out one night they might have stayed home because she was sick and he would have read her stories until she fell asleep, and maybe that would have brought Claire closer to him, seeing how much he loved the child if she had not realized it before, and an affectionate look would pass between them such as had not passed between them for so long. Justin speculated about these things, the things that might have been, and sometimes they were more vivid than at others, as though she really had lived and he was remembering a living past, as when she came home from school crying because someone had called her a bad name that she refused to repeat and Justin didn't want to hear it either but Claire made her say it and then called up the mother and made a row, or when she fell and scraped her knee and stood by stoically while he cleaned and dressed the wound. The difference between her being there and not being there was so immense that he could not really fathom it and yet he had brought it about as easily as you might twist a knife in someone's flesh without thinking about it, any more than you would think about your next meal, and only now had it begun to weigh heavily on him when it was too late to give her life. It was not her loss that he mourned but his own. Not having been, she had lost nothing, but he was here and his loss was real. He would have had her and now he did not. She would have come skipping into the house after being out with her friends and run up to her room and gotten on the telephone, and come down for supper and they would have all eaten together, Claire and he and the two boys, and she would have said, "Can I dye my hair? Millie dyed her hair and it's green and red now. Please, please, oh please let me," and Claire would of course have said no and she would have sulked and the boys would make fun of her and that would make her cry and they'd have a scene like the ones they saw on the sitcoms but there wouldn't be a commercial break and it would go on for days, until maybe Claire relented though he doubted she would, and when she was in college she'd go out with a boy studying pharmacology or business administration and bring him home for the holidays and he might be the quiet type which suited Justin just fine because he wouldn't have a roving eye, though these quiet types sometimes surprised you with their bottled-up rage and he imagined she would be sleeping with him already because she wasn't shy and knew her way around and was surprised it didn't bother him. "Well," Claire might say, "it could have been worse," and he'd agree.

And he would never know what she would have looked like, though he could imagine her looking like Claire when Claire was a child and hoped she would have because Claire had been pretty and had had that curly hair and little pout and mischief in her eyes, though of course there'd be something of him in her too, something he might have gotten from his mother or an aunt which would make her a mix of the two of them which was the way it was intended, he supposed. Little girls always looked better than their mothers, he thought, even if they looked pretty much the same. It was as if all the kinks were ironed out from one generation to the next and an improved model hit the floor. He'd seen that in many families and would perhaps have seen it in his own had the child seen the light of day.

And then she too would have children and they would be improved models too, or would she be inimitable? And he would have another set of grandchildren, and who could say what they'd be like, an entire chain of being starting up and branching out in geometric progression until there were enough of them to fill the universe. They would remember him perhaps, his memory would be lodged within them, and that would be his true immortality, the imprint he had made upon their hearts, the love he might have borne them, becoming part of them even if they did not know it just as the heat of the sun leaves its imprint in the blood.

But he did not like to think of her as growing old. He preferred to imagine her in an eternal childhood occupying the center of his life, for he was still young and wished that he too might remain young forever, and in this prime of life he could watch her growing up, being there instead of not being there, making her presence felt so distinctly that she could not be ignored. She would be there rather than not being there. That made all the difference. It was the difference between having a world and not having a world, between being and nothingness. When she was on the other side he could not touch her. It was as though those who were not born were hidden behind a veil through some metaphysical sleight of hand. The room that had been prepared for her remained empty and he had held the key.

And he imagined the boys resenting her sometimes because everyone treated her like a princess and most of all Justin, who took delight in everything she did and would not have raised his voice to her as he sometimes did to Claire or the boys, seeing them as a reflection or validation of himself while she was like a precious stone he was privileged to behold. The two boys liked to tease her and then feign innocence when she began to cry, and he would of course calm her and kiss her and give the boys a displeased look, saying, "You'd better watch yourselves," and they would stare at something dumbly, impatient to be released, and even in her tears she was shrewd enough to see she had the upper hand now and would start reciting all her grievances, but that would make her cry again and Justin would get angrier and angrier and send the boys to their rooms and they would get back at her later, maybe hitting her on the back or shaking her by the arm so that Justin had to conclude that they weren't really afraid of him, or else ruled by impulses they couldn't control like most of us, and yet they would defend her if other children picked on her so there were deeper things no doubt that made us what we were.

It would have made such a difference, he knew, had she been there. They would have been five instead of four. There would have been another place to set at the dining room table, another bed in the children's rooms, another closet filled with children's clothes. The house would have looked and felt a little different and the cast of his mind as well, making room for an entire new set of circumstances, creating new connections and leading his thoughts down different paths so that at a certain moment he might have said yes instead of no and changed his life, as when he contemplated her vulnerability as a fragile child and felt a sudden sympathy toward all those who were small and weak and vowed to be more decent as a man and felt ennobled and even exalted by this resolution, or when a piece of music she was listening to caused his mind to wander and created a mood in him he had not known before; but most of all it would have been the fact of her existence that altered his perspective, coloring every moment of his life like a little sun illuminating his world.

And all the family moments would have been different when she added her voice to the chorus though the boys might try to shut her up. It wouldn't help. She would always make herself heard, in a piping child's voice or the impatient and disdainful voice of a teenager and they would argue things back and forth or discuss the state of the nation or the future of the world and she would have very definite ideas about everything, more categorical the older she got, being better read and sharper in her mind than the two boys, so in the end just the two of them would be left, she and Justin, having one of their deep conversations while Claire did the dishes and the boys watched TV, and she would say something about Plato or Marx and he couldn't really keep up with her, she knew more than he did when it came to what you got from books, but also seemed to have a finer sensibility, and it was really pointless to become one of those smug parents reminding their children of the practicalities of things though he was tempted to hold forth so as not to forfeit his parental role entirely. And he remembered talking to his own father in this way, though without the learned references, and the feeling of satisfaction it had given him to appear before his father in such a positive light, demonstrating his deepest knowledge and articulating his strongest thoughts, and imagined that she felt this satisfaction too and even excitement and was amazed at this insight, this sense of her he had, as though it had opened an entire world to him, the world of another being, and he vowed to be the one she always talked to, a sounding board or safety valve, and so it might be for years to come; there would always be these intimate moments between them, and in a way he regretted that Claire would be excluded but understood that a mother and her daughter would have other things to talk about so he didn't feel so bad about it after all.

And he came back always to the moment when she would be there, to the moment when he first imagined her presence and understood what her absence meant, seeing her suddenly among them, and it was like a melody that always came back to the same bar or note and from there flowed out again, so that her entire life might stretch before him and he could find it in a thousand different places in a thousand different ways. One morning he had woken up alone in bed and had had some time to think before Claire began wondering why he didn't come downstairs, and suddenly the idea had come to him and from it all the rest had followed. He did not share these thoughts with Claire. He knew how much they would have hurt her, or did she have such thoughts herself? He would have regretted it if she did, because there was nothing they could do about it now. They were growing old.

He imagined that at a certain age she would have been a skinny, tomboyish type and could see her in denim shorts frayed at the edges and long yellow hair, a little difficult to talk to because she lived in her own world, and even the boys were wary of her now because she had certain skills they lacked, such as climbing into trees, where she spent a good deal of her time, and they had to call her down when it was time to eat and she came into the house reluctantly and got involved in various occupations that no one could understand and they wondered if they should see a counselor, but Claire said she'd grow out of it and she had and soon enough had a boyfriend, though they too spent a good deal of their time up in the big elm on the front lawn where Justin had once built a tree house that the boys had used until they found a snake sitting in the center of it. And she filled out too, but Justin wasn't awkward with her because they had cemented their bond at an early age and she would always be his little girl, even when he overheard her talking on the phone about her period and other complaints. It was really Claire who was awkward, wishing to shield her from certain words and certain thoughts and therefore always speaking vaguely about the perils a young girl faced, while Justin assumed an easy pedagogic air and never shied away from awkward subjects, assuming she understood all the terms in an adult's lexicon of forbidden words.

And she of course would have understood more than she should have about certain things and he wondered where her knowledge came from, just as she often surprised them with displays of expertise that were far beyond what should have been her range, as when she diagnosed a problem they were having with their computer or told Justin how far apart to plant the ligustrum for their hedge. You would have expected her to have had to study these subjects in a very visible way to be so adept but they were part of a hidden life where great areas of knowledge seemed somehow to accrue to her, and though all this excluded Justin he did not feel left out but was delighted by her unexpected accomplishment and always eager to be surprised by her and could already see how the boys stood slightly in awe of her.

She would have walked among them and taken up her space, space downstairs on the sofa or in the den or dining room or in the kitchen fixing herself a snack and fixing something for Justin too, preferably some cold cuts which he preferred when he came downstairs late at night being somewhat hungry, and she would have her hair in a towel, having just washed it, and look like a grown woman though not her full size yet, being still a little short, a little woman then, but entirely self-possessed and knowing how to make a proper sandwich or whip up some pancakes in the morning so that she could take over the household if it ever came to that and care for the boys like a mother. Such a woman's hand had been sorely missed when Claire was in the hospital once for a week and Justin and the boys had had to fend for themselves, eating out of cans and burning every pot in the house, and she would have taken over and shooed them out of the kitchen and put up a roast or maybe surprised them with chicken pot pie and a fancy dessert and told the boys to wash the dishes and of course they would complain in whiny voices and Justin would give them one of his looks which they understood so well and she would drop into an easy chair and he would bring her something to drink.

She could have been there but she was not, and if she had been there her voice would have been added to the voices that filled their lives, one more voice joining the chorus of voices that filled the house, closed in upon itself by the walls that excluded everything that was not themselves, and outside the world stretching infinitely toward the farthest horizon, and she would venture into it and always come back to them reporting what she had seen and what she had done, as when she had gone on a camping trip in the mountains and a bull had chased her across a field and she had fallen into a cesspool running away and they could still smell it on her when she got back and they made her tell the story over and over again until one day she recorded it and gave them each a copy, or when she was in the city with Millie and they saw smoke coming out of a window and ran up the stairs and helped the family get out with their children and later when the fire department came slipped away like true heroes without even waiting to be thanked, and all this would have been part of the untold history of the world and of a life that might have been like initials carved on a tree, and Justin could see her leaving her mark on everything she touched just as she would have touched their lives and been a part of them as large and real as themselves.

It was almost impossible to comprehend how there might have been another child in their home and how there wasn't. When he thought of her it was as if she was really there, moving through the rooms, opening the refrigerator, putting on her scuffed-up shoes when she went out to play, and so eager about everything, eager to explore the woods and maybe dig up some worms or catch sight of a deer and come running home to tell everyone what was there, and the boys running into the woods too but never finding what she had seen and thinking she'd tricked them and Justin having to mediate or go there himself to look around and pronounce a verdict. Or the boys trying to trick her but after a certain age she never taking the bait, not even wavering no matter how tempting they made things sound, saying once they'd found a dead body and another time that they'd found a trunkful of brand new dolls, but instead going straight to Justin or Claire and saying the boys were making up stories again, and they would insist there really was a body out there until even Justin began to wonder but she just stared at him, somewhat disappointed that he was letting himself be taken in.

She was not there though she might have been and then so many things would have been different and so much space would belong to her and such long chains of circumstance would emanate from her crisscrossing the world like particles in one of those accelerators you occasionally see on TV or in a book, so many paths and so many encounters, and she would be there with all the baggage of a human life, and her friends would have her phone number listed among the others if they didn't know it by heart, and include her when they planned a party or went to the mall, and she would have been one more teenager dancing in a dim-lit room or stopping in at McDonald's for a hamburger and fries and maybe the biggest coke they had because she liked sweet things and Justin was amazed that she stayed so thin though Claire had stayed thin too so it must have been something in her family, the metabolism maybe, because she ate like a horse. And he tried to imagine how her presence might have been felt in every stage of their lives, he tried to imagine her on the day they moved out of the city and the way she would have run through the empty rooms of the big house and done somersaults on the lawn and swung from the trees and explored the woods, or how she might have won the school spelling bee and gone to a state competition and come in third and how they would have had to console her as she went around muttering the word she had missed and berating herself like a mental patient for a while as they trailed after her helplessly and Justin started making funny faces to make her laugh and Claire suggested they have ice cream or go out for dinner and even the boys were chastened, or how she won her race in the elementary school track meet in her tomboy phase and then she raced the boys privately and beat them too wearing her denim shorts and tattered polo shirt and looking like a little ragamuffin borne along by the wind.

And she would always remain their third child, the child who had not been born but might have been, assuming a place in the universe, there instead of not there, and that would have made a difference so great he could not calculate it, the difference between the greatest thing and the smallest thing but even greater, infinitely and immeasurably greater, for she was not there and she would have been and then her presence would have filled their lives. It was impossible to say what life would have brought her, so many moments like pictures on a screen, and Justin choosing some of them to file away and form the substance of his inner life, and together all those pictures telling a story beyond the storyteller's art, made up of the ungraspable sense of things that came over him when he sat by the window on a rainy day and watched the rain falling from the misty sky and thought of her running across the lawn in a downpour with her little umbrella and the hood of her coat framing her tiny face and laughing when she got inside the house as if she'd never had such fun in all her life. And these would have been among the sweetest moments he would ever know, so sweet he might weep when he thought of them, and wanted to weep too knowing they would never be, and this child never born, so close he could almost touch her face, and yet immeasurably distant, living in his idea of her and in his regret at having refused to admit her into the world.

And he heard a kind of music when he thought of her and it was the sweetest sound he had ever heard, it skipped along and paused and found a melody endlessly repeated because it said the thing he wanted to say and he did not want it ever to resolve itself but go on and on as long as he lived so that in this way she might live too. It went on and on and he thought of it as her song and sometimes thought he heard her singing it in her child's voice, preoccupied perhaps as she often was, inspecting a blade of grass or a ladybug, and who could say what would be going on in her mind, though perhaps nothing was there but the simple enjoyment of the day. And Justin listened to the music and never wanted it to stop, for it was the music that would have been her life and it was so sweet he could not bear it.

6 comments:

  1. I struggle with my comment here trying to avoid the obvious delve into the public debate on women's reproductive rights, pro-choice versus anti-abortion, contraception, etc, so instead I'll stay within the realms of the writing itself, which is well done and strikes at the heart of emotion, pulling the reader deep into the abyss of Justin's depression. So many nice insights into the daily routines of family and particularly a young child (the last paragraph about the ladybugs and "who could say what would be going on in her mind, though perhaps nothing was there but the simple enjoyment of the day" was wonderful).

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  2. Moving in so many places. I second Jim's comment about the final paragraph--I had the same reaction.

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  3. I like the theme of the melancholy emptiness that Justin has, the whole idea of him feeling so hollow he has to create something that was never really there is beautiful. There are some great passages too.

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  4. remarkable, imagining his daughter´s life, to get thru his own, now empty, life. Guilt, Resignation. I also loved that passage about what´s going thru her mind.

    Michael McCarthy

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  5. The following sentence particularly jumped out at me: "It was as simple as turning a garment inside out to imagine her there instead of not there, as though even in her absence she inhabited some undisclosed dimension of the world, a world that might also be turned inside out and would have been if they had let her live."

    The run-on nature of the sentence gives it a breathless quality, which perfectly reflects the overwhelming feeling that arises when contemplating an alternate reality. The sentence itself is beautiful, as is the observation at its core.

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  6. I like the author's daring voice...it takes guts to write about painful events.
    Thank you for a new perspective, one that never really occurred to me before. I enjoy stories that challenge my evolving beliefs and
    I am endlessly fascinated by stories that bravely tap into our subconscious.

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