Although he’s a gynecologist, my husband likes to pretend he’s an artist, and that’s just one of the things about him that annoy me. Actually, I don’t remember exactly when most of the things he does and says started to bug me, but I can distinguish this one as one of my main peeves. For example, when we have people over he tells them that he “dabbles in art” but isn’t an “artist” in the true sense of the word, which gives a false impression of modesty. And we have people over regularly. I really wish we didn’t, because it involves cooking and cleaning both before and after their visits. My husband insists on the food being plentiful as a way of showing we are a supposedly functional family. During those abundant dinners, which take place in our living room at the low table between the settee, the couch, and the armchair, where we can seat four others as well as us, I’m the one who has to serve the guests and am mostly stationed in the kitchen, so when I come out to join them and chat for a minute I have to sit on a stool. I always lie and say it’s quite comfortable. Meanwhile, he talks with the guests and mainly tells them about himself. Since it’s considered improper to speak about pussies, which are the basis of all his knowledge, he talks to them about his “art,” meaning the oil paintings that he does in one of the rooms of our apartment, his “atelier.” As a result, our two children, who are constantly at each other’s throats, have to share a room. His paintings are extremely amateurish. The colors are murky, subdued, and depressing. Every time he makes a wrong stroke, he plasters over it with a new layer of paint. His canvases therefore resemble large pats of vomit—each is like a copious, undigested, masticated meal that has come up to say hello. He considers his paintings “abstract” and thinks they “express emotional states of alarm and elation,” but in fact they represent what he knows best: vaginas, from the inside and out. I presume other people realize that, at least those with a bit more nous. I’m sure they call him “the gynecologist who paints pussies” and laugh at him behind his back. But he thoroughly deserves it, so I don’t care if that’s the way it is—I even secretly wish they laugh at him. But we have some guests who don’t say that to his face, at least; on the contrary, they flatter him. “Oh, you’re a true artist,” they croon, looking at his paintings as if they were contemplating a Leonardo. And then he comes out with his familiar phrase, “No, I only dabble in art,” and adds once again, with false modesty, “I’m just аn ordinary doctor,” knowing full well the status his profession confers.
The second topic at these dinners, not surprisingly, are his patients and their health issues. My husband, it should be said, has shed all of his former friends who are outside his line of work. All his friends are also physicians he met at medical school, and their wives are his patients. Together they have “fraternity.” I find the idea of fraternity among men rather ridiculous from today’s perspective. When I was young and my husband and I first met, I liked the idea of him having a faithful circle of friends like that. But I didn’t realize back then what they talk about together. I didn’t realize that they talk about us, their wives. And I think my husband is the worst among them, mainly because of being a gynecologist and enjoying the status of knowing all the intimate details of the wives. Unfortunately I have a terrible, sneaking suspicion that I’m afraid to voice, namely that his friends deliberately take their wives to see my husband because that gives them control over them. If one of his friends has a sexually transmitted disease, my husband can help keep it secret. And if that disease is “the woman’s fault,” he can tell the men before their wife does—if she does at all. This is just my theory, which I’m far from certain about, seeing as this band of men claims their fraternity is “above all else” and that they’d literally do anything for each other. Sometimes I like to think they’re gay and that if we weren’t there, and if there wasn’t such social pressure on them, they’d all get in line, one behind the other, and have a good bang together. That’s how I imagine them at times when they annoy me: stuck together like sardines, like wagons of a train, and doing the lo-co-mo-tion. Except that the first in line has nothing to do with his cock and just holds it in his hand, at a loss. But afterward they alternate so that none in their fraternity misses out. In my fantasies, we women sit at the side and watch them. We do in reality, too. They talk and we look on, or every now and then we whisper recipes to each other when we get tired of their blah. Sometimes the wives also manage to secretly exchange a word or two with my husband in the hall—an extra little consultation regarding their health. “Take a dose of Betadine,” I’d hear, or “Maybe it’s my diet, I don’t know why it keeps coming back.” “Don’t start dieting.” “But I eat healthily. I don’t even smoke anymore.”
He and I met at the gynecological table, when I went to see him for a checkup. He was exceptionally kind and gentle, and his approach fascinated me. I was very, very young—that should be taken into account—and the other gynecologists I’d been to were rough, rude, and generally unpleasant. Not that I had any kind of problem—on the contrary. To begin with, he sat me down in his office and put me at ease with a friendly chat. He was charming. Soothing classical music was playing in the background, and he offered me some herbal tea he’d already made. After I’d relaxed a little, he showed me to a delightful little changing room with beautiful plush white slippers on the floor, a new clothes stand with several rungs, and a lovely white gown I could put on before getting up into the table. And when I climbed up, he said, “Move down, sweetie, move down a bit,” and tenderly took me by the thighs to pull me a little lower. Then he began talking about inserting the speculum, telling me how uncomfortable it was, but he’d be gentle, and he even tried to warm it up so it wouldn’t be unpleasant for me when he put it in. The way he spread my labia before inserting the speculum made a wave of warmth run through me. Then he looked inside, and I followed his face. I found him handsome, the handsomest. His blue eyes looked inside me with an expression as if they were gazing at a sunset over a peaceful lake. I could tell he was moved. “Oh, everything’s perfect. You have such beautiful anatomy,” he said, and repeated it when he was scanning my ovaries. “What a lovely uterus,” he sighed several times. But before we got to the scan, he did something that I now know he also does to other women—perhaps that’s why he’s so popular, in addition to the plush slippers, the beautiful clothes stand, the nice cup of tea, and the amicable manner. His long, delicate fingers probed inside me to check if anything was sore. He apologized many times before doing that, of course, and he explained exactly what he was going to do. But as he poked in his index finger and turned it this way and that, his other fingers tenderly stroked my clitoris. It was lovely. I went back six months later and lied that I had an itch inside. “Everything’s fine, just wonderful,” he said. “I’ve never seen such pure and beautiful anatomy,” he repeated, gazing almost amorously inside me. And so it was every six months, for three years, until one day we met in a bar in town, and he told me in a drunken state that I was the most beautiful patient with the most beautiful “how should I put it . . . it begins with C” he had ever seen. Then he told me I couldn’t be his patient anymore after him saying that, but I could be his girlfriend. A few months later he told me I could be his wife, and I accepted. I was twenty-two, he was thirty-eight. I’m still his patient today.
His paintings are the main catalyst for our arguments, but not the actual reason for them. The reason is more complex, and here’s another example: once my husband and I were talking about art. He sees himself as a kind of Chekhov, of course, someone who was a doctor but later became famous for actually being a great artist. We spoke about our favorite writers, painters, musicians, and I started to talk about how much I like the poetry of Sylvia Plath. Suddenly, it seemed something occurred to him.
“Have you ever noticed that all great artists are men?” he said.
That had struck me before, and I felt it was a sore point. Disappointed, I replied affirmatively.
“And why do you think that’s so?”
I started to ruminate. I couldn’t immediately come up the line I’d blast him with today: women never had the conditions to be creative. They were simply not allowed to, when they had to stay at home all day and wipe the crap off children’s butts, as I did too, while he went gallivanting off to conferences in China, Africa, and the rest of Europe, gaining inspiration.
“Um, er—” I stammered, which I now greatly regret.
“It’s because men are the spirit, and women the body. Men are creative, women are practical. Men look to the stars, women forage for their families. Women cannot be artists—it’s not in their nature.”
I got very offended but didn’t know how to reply to him. I was twenty-something, if that can serve as my defense today.
“Come on. Name just one great female writer. With the standing of Dostoyevsky, Chekov, or Hemingway, for example,” he said.
“Well, Marguerite Yourcenar,” I proffered, for she was the only one who occurred to me just then.
“She doesn’t count. She was a lesbian,” he replied and went off to the toilet, where he stayed for fifteen minutes to shit. I had to go and pick up our son from kindergarten and we never continued the conversation, in which I’d have mentioned hundreds of male artists who were gay, like his favorite composer Tchaikovsky, for example.
His ideas about the greatness of the artist and his own desire to become one emerged long ago, but he only started painting much later, after he “became aware,” as he put it. He actually started to paint intensively after the birth of our second child—eight years ago, in other words. By then I’d become a bit more thick-skinned and stopped fearing him so much. When he first started painting, I was conditioned to sing his praises. I told him his paintings were very beautiful and that he truly had talent. He blushed with happiness whenever I said things like that and, as if he had a lump in his throat or was about to burst out crying, he gazed at the finished canvas with tears in his eyes. “I’ve always wanted to be a painter!” he’d exclaim. “I vacillated between medicine and art. But my father made me follow in his footsteps. And now—destiny,” he repeated exultantly. I was amazed he said things like that to me, his wife; he didn’t need to put on a show with me.
Later I started to ignore his paintings, and several years ago I finally began to tell him I didn’t like them at all. The last time we quarreled, I told him in a moment of anger that they looked like ugly, blotchy twats, and when they weren’t like that they looked like omelets or pats of vomit. He got offended like never before.
“At least it’s a form of expression,” he said. “And what do you do?”
“Expression? Sure—you squeeze the tube and it comes pooping out,” I told him.
He almost flew into a rage. You could just see him flush red, but he’s able to control his temper, as if he just swallows it down, and within ten seconds his face had returned to normal.
“How witty we are today,” he sneered, not knowing what else to say. “It’s a shame you’re not a writer,” he went on, knowing I’d always wanted to write. He could see I was upset and continued to torment me.
“Oh, I was forgetting that you write poetry. Why don’t you read me one of your ditties so I can get to be the critic?” he flung at me caustically and laughed triumphantly, because he’d never read any of my poems. I’d never given him them for one simple reason, which now I no longer wanted to hide from him. I went to the bedroom and, from under the bed, took out the sheets of paper with the poetry I secretly wrote while he was at work. I gave him the last poem and told him to read it aloud.
He lies beside me
but I dream of you
your nightly flower
opens up for me
you moan like the winds
o my dearest rose
your nectar hive hints
of pleasures no one knows
My husband’s jaw set and looked a bit dislocated to the right when he finished reading. His eyes were wide open and he looked at me fixedly, pale in the face.
“The rhyme’s a bit forced,” I said to him cynically. “Sorry to disappoint you.”
“No, I’m not disappointed,” he replied. “I was expecting it to be shit.”
“Нектар” © Rumena Bužarovska. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Will Firth. All rights reserved.