The Way to the Sea

The ultrasound technician was a tall woman with intense eyes. At the twenty-week scan Dylan and Tessa beheld the first black-and-white images of their baby moving. “You may as well go out and buy a little dress,” she said after a while. “Get ready for seven years of dresses and the color pink. It’s going to be pink, pink, pink all the way. I’ve got one of those at home myself. She refuses to wear anything but dresses. As if our grandmothers never started a revolution.” The woman laughed, gliding the wand across Tessa’s stomach. Cold. 

“There, her bladder. It’s full.”

“So she’s got kidneys.”

“Her kidneys work, yes. And here you see the spine. All nicely closed up.”

“No spina bifida.”

“You’re well-informed.”

“Googled it, yeah.”

“You really shouldn’t.”

“I know, I know.”

“Two chambers of the heart, great. Nuchal fold. Looks just fine. As far as I can tell for now, this is a perfect baby.”

“Really?”

“Really. I can’t see everything, of course. But based on what I see I’d have absolutely no worries.”

“No?”

“No. It’s all there, everything in its place.”

Tessa and Dylan smiled. The technician froze the screen and printed out the images. To take home.

“A Mini-Me,” Tessa had said, “finally.”

“A little girl,” said Dylan, as they gazed at the gray blobs on the black background where you could just make out their daughter’s little leg and foot. Five toes.

“Her name is Summer,” said Tessa when they got home. She rubbed her belly. “My little me. Your name is Summer.” Her favorite season. Warmth. “With my own little Summer in the house, Summer won’t ever end.”

Dylan thought “Summer” did sound pretty cute and sunny. But he still needed to think it over a bit. Just for form’s sake, Tessa knew. That was the way it always went. She’d think of it, and he’d act as if it had been his idea. She didn’t mind, as long as she knew the real story.

So it was going to be a girl who, according to the technician, loved pink. A Mini-Me. She shouldn’t really call the baby that, of course it had its own personality, she knew that. Still, she could see herself walking around with a smaller version of herself beside her. A little girl that was just like her. She’d cuddle her. She would kiss her to death. They’d splash through puddles wearing identical rain boots. Screeching with laughter. With the same black sense of humor. Mini-Me would take her hand, look up at her with the same eyes. She was like her, but younger, prettier, thinner. An improved version. Secretly, of course, she was hoping for a perfect version. Although she knew quite well that that was silly, because there was no such thing as perfection and she didn’t want to set the bar too high for the poor kid either.

But what emerged from her in the end had nothing to do with her whatsoever.

Dylan was standing next to her bed weeping with joy. He didn’t notice the look the midwife and nursing staff exchanged when the first Apgar test was being administered. And when five minutes later most of the required reflexes weren’t there either, she saw them conferring quietly by the sterile counter, but Dylan didn’t see it. He just kept saying she was the best thing that ever happened to him. “Isn’t she, Tess?”

It hadn’t been moving as it was getting pushed out. It lay on top of her inert, a dead weight. Light gray, toadlike. Inert and failing the first test of her life. It wouldn’t be the last, either. Right from the start, she had failed the test twice in a row.

“Is it alive?” was one of the first things she’d asked. Maybe it’s best if it isn’t, she thought to herself. Tessa sensed immediately that the baby had taken something important away from her. Something she’d been working on all these years. She didn’t know what it was. Except that she had to—somehow—get it back.

“She’s such a cute little girl, Tess.” Tears were rolling down his cheeks. She had never seen him so happy. “The lovely little Summer Lea Montgomery.”

“She isn’t right, Dyl,” she said quietly. “Haven’t you noticed?”

“She’s got ten little fingers and ten toes. She’s the prettiest little girl I’ve ever seen. And I’m not just saying that because she happens to be our daughter. She really is.”

“OK, whatever.”

It’s smothering me. I want it gone, was all she could think. It’s got to go. Even before she’d had a good look at her daughter, she was already ashamed of it. She was even more ashamed of the fact that it was her own child. The shame weighed exactly nine pounds, two ounces, it was warm, and it was stuck to her. Naked skin against naked skin. After a while it began whimpering quietly. She isn’t happy to be here either, of course, thought Tessa. It wasn’t until a nurse lifted the dead weight off her that she could breathe again. But after just a short break, it was back on top of her. Asleep. Dressed, now. To make her bond with it. To punish her. Tessa tucked her chin to her chest. She caught sight of the baby’s bald pate. She had a small head, just like Tessa’s. Dylan’s fingers were stroking the little skull. It was wearing the expensive antique-rose pajamas Tessa had carefully chosen in the children’s clothing boutique. By Petit Bateau. They were too big. But the flowery outfit wasn’t meant for this little girl. It was meant for the other little girl. The right one.

“So she isn’t a big walker,” Dylan had boomed when the pediatrician had come over in person to tell them that the motor function was weak, even ten minutes later, on the third Apgar test.

“Neither her daddy nor her mommy are big walkers. We take the car whenever we can, don’t we, Tess?”

That was true. They took the car whenever they could.

Two hours after the delivery she was still lying on her back with her legs in the stirrups waiting for an ob-gyn who had the time to sew her up. All the ob-gyns were needed elsewhere in the building. Tessa could wait. Hers had been a model delivery. That much, at least, was true. Finally an intern arrived to finish the job. Circa 1987, was her guess. Athletic. Strong. A Hugo Boss model. Full lips. Straight nose. Heavy eyebrows. Thick dark blond hair swept to the right.

“I look terrible,” she whispered. “Sorry.” She suspected her makeup had run, even if it was Dior.

His symmetrical face kept a professional gynecologist’s expression as he went about his business, but Tessa saw right through him: he was a frat boy. They called him the cunt-inspector. Tomorrow night he’d be sitting at the bar describing the ruined cunt he peered into yesterday and the botched thing that had emerged from it. “What do you expect, from a cunt like that? Anyone with a brain could tell that nothing normal could ever come out of that. And still those people keep trying! I don’t get it? Do you get it? It ought to be a crime! It only weakens the gene pool.” Tessa could just hear the frat boys laughing.

“Mrs. Hoogerdijk? How are you holding up?” The Hugo Boss model was looking up at her from below.

“It hurts quite a bit.”

“That’s because your body’s natural numbing mechanism during labor has worn off. If you’d been sewn up right after the birth, you wouldn’t have felt a thing.”

“Oh well, what’s a little more pain?” She smiled.

Before moving on to the next cunt, he congratulated her warmly on her first child, which was otherwise perfectly healthy. He said it to make her feel better, she knew.

“She’s fine,” said Dylan. “She’s still our first little girl.”

“Never look a gift horse in the mouth,” said Tessa.

“Excuse me?”

Tessa began to laugh. Dylan started chuckling too. The intern said he was glad they were able to laugh about it, anyway. If you could see the humor in it, it took away the sharp edges. A sense of humor was crucial, he thought. “Don’t lose it, you hear me? You’ll be needing it badly in the coming months and years.”

Tessa nodded enthusiastically. It was all just a joke.

From De weg naar zee. © Elke Geurts. By arrangement with De Bezige Bij. Translation © 2014 by Hester Velmans. All rights reserved.