by Miriam Fried
At one time, it was common for parents to be surprised by suicidal daughters and half-wit second sons. Much later it became possible for doctors to run expensive tests on pregnant women right after conception and predict, accurately and in detail, the nature of the child expected to emerge. What happened to the pregnancy after the tests was up to you. The effect was that attractive politicians were no longer forced to display toothy, lumpish daughters at their sides. University professors were no longer shackled to incorrigibly illiterate sons. Being perfect was getting easier all the time.
That was good news for a lovely lady named Leonie, who liked everything in her life to be just right. Because she had a great deal of money, this was fairly easy to arrange. Translucent drapes rippled at her windows. She held dinner parties and served miniature cherry tartlets for dessert. Her high standards prevented her marrying, because of the notorious incompetence of men. But one day she realized that she did want a baby. Bright eyes, happy gurgle, everlasting love. Leonie glowed just thinking about her perfect child.
The first step was finding a father. Soon the postman was thrusting glossy booklets through Leonieís old-fashioned slot. Dimpled children clutching test tubes gamboled across the pages while small-print sidebars listed genetic ingredients. Disease-free product from all sorts was on offer: tall men, short men, men who wrote poetry, men who would be ashamed to write poetry, men who could fix your private hovercraft with a screwdriver and a roll of duct tape, men who did and did not collect stamps. Leonie skimmed through, folding back promising pages and humming. She felt that her search for desirable male-material linked her in some mystical way to all the women of the past. But unlike them, Leonie would be able to adjust for mistakes. That was the genius of modern technology, and a money-back guarantee.
Leonie was thrilled when her first order arrived. She lit a scented candle before breaking the seal on the vial with pearl-handled scissors. For her second order, a month later, she played her favorite symphony. For the third and fourth orders, she decided it was sentimental to do more than wash her hands. Then she stopped counting. It wasnít that she wasnít conceiving. It was the test that followed conception, and its maddening results.
Oh, no matter how inadequate the latest embryo, the specialist in fetal profiling always tried to make the best of it. Such a beautiful child! (But incapable of abstract thought.) Such a brilliant child! (Too bad about the paralyzing insecurity.) Such a healthy specimen! (if you ignored the lust for power that would develop by age ten.)
"I donít understand," said Leonie. "The father is a bonsai specialist."
"It doesnít matter," said the doctor. "Personality is only 57% heritable."
Leonie brought out the catalog that had sold her the sperm for the insecure brainiac. "This one was a Ďdesigner blendí," she pointed out, reading from the promotional copy. "ĎEach chromosome specially selected from a high-achieving, high-spirited dad.í"
"Just because we can predict personality doesnít mean we can control it," said the doctor, sighing. He had made the same speech to five previous patients on that day alone.
"You canít possibly know what a mother feels," said Leonie, who was feeling very exasperated indeed. But when she requested the usual injection she was polite about it, just the same. Each time the apparatus was rolled in, she touched her stomach tenderly to sense the flaw that festered there. Then she would hold out her arm and accept the needle, bravely whispering good-bye.
That year was not easy for Leonie. Dressing in the morning, she grew melancholy before mirrors. For some time now, she had been waiting for her child. It was taking too long. Now her child was waiting for her. In the reflection of her slender, singular self, she saw how lonely they both were.
The last straw was a test the doctor deemed absolutely successful. "A fine child," he announced with his usual benevolence, "average in every way!" He was surprised to find Leonie staring at him in horror.
After the removal procedure, she hurried home to a bedroom littered with dog-eared catalogs and used vials. She bundled it all up for the rubbish bin and went round the pub for a drink. She hadnít been there in years, because the wine list was so atrocious.
Leonie sat at the bar, nursing a lager and moping. She had been there an hour or so when a man walked in and stood next to her. "Hiya beautiful," said Leonie with bitter irony, "Where have you been all my life?"
"Iím Roger," he said, unleashing a wild burning desire in Leonie that overcame her usual scruples. Even when he was inside her the hunger between them was not satisfied. With Roger, Leonie conceived in the most primitive possible fashion. Still, she sensed that the child she was waiting for had at last been tempted into existence.
On the way to the clinic, driving carefully to protect the life inside her, she considered her other potential children, the ones who had been refused entry to this world. Her never-children, she thought: they were on a raft suspended in a warm and endless ocean. Now they waved a vague farewell to her latest child-to-be, the one who had trumped their bid; cut their raft adrift; smiling, left them behind.
Hours later the testing was complete. As Leonie listened to the diagnosis, she trembled with the vast soaring happiness within her. It was as she knew it would be. Her daughter would be clever, compassionate, creative. She would be healthy, and live long. She would be as beautiful as her mother, perhaps more so.
Leonie returned home with an armful of books and instructional films on pregnancy and child-raising. Roger was there already, making coffee and settling down with a crossword puzzle. Leonie realized that he was suffocating her. She was overcome by the sickening intimacy of his presence. She told him to go, and he did.
Nine months later, their daughter was born. Lying in the hospital bed, Leonie held the infant gingerly, contemplating her perfection. She was a mother now. But she didnít feel complete so much as superfluous. At any moment she might commit some blunder that would ruin the child forever. She lay absolutely still, trying not to confuse her daughter with excessive demands for affection or stunt her intellectual development with baby talk. For the first time in her life, Leonie was absolutely terrified.
When the nurse returned to the hospital room, the infant was alone in her motherís bed. There was a note from Leonie by her side. I am not worthy of her, it said. Let her have everything, for she is perfect unto herself. The nurse looked at the baby. Her little red face was twisted in agony. The nurse picked up the crying baby and rocked it in her arms.
Leonie did not come back. She was traveling to another continent on another world, imagining herself, Roger, and their daughter as three equidistant points of an empty triangle. The lines of loneliness stretched taut between them. Leonie felt a quintessence of sorrow, an infinity of mourning, and was at last perfectly satisfied.
Meanwhile, the nurse, who was clever, compassionate, and creative, had taken a liking to the child and decided to adopt. "Maybe sheíll follow in my footsteps," she thought. The baby gurgled with appreciation. With perfect mastery of her position, she grew up to disappoint her new mother better than any kid ever did before. In fact, everyone in this story lived happily ever after, even Roger, who had solved his crossword puzzle. g
Miriam Fried's stories have appeared in Cafe Irreal, The Baltimore Review, and The North Central Review; and are forthcoming from Unbound and The Absinthe Literary Review. She is a graduate of Swarthmore College and of Temple University, where she received the 2004 Frances Israel Manuscript Prize for a collection of short stories. She lives in London.
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