BETWEEN US GIRLS
Translated from the Czech by Cyril Simsa
My mother was always completely impossible when she tried to talk to me in confidence -- woman to woman, as they say. I couldn't stand it.
That evening I had come back from a date with Jirka and I was feeling rather in two minds, because on the one hand, it was extremely irritating that I was nineteen and still a virgin, but on the other, those dates with him left me feeling utterly drained. Jirka would always set of silently, walking at an unbearable pace, and wouldn't slow down until we reached some distant corner of a park, or the wasteland beyond city limits where neglected patches of grass nestled in between enclosed lots. And then he would start to undress me, regardless of whether it was cold or hot, regardless of whether it was light or dark, regardless of whether there were people around or not. It bothered me terribly: before, I had never realised that I needed privacy for sex, solitude and half-light, but now it was quite clear to me.
I began to consider the possibility that I might solve the problem by taking him home. On Friday evenings, my mother was almost always away -- ever since I was a girl I had been used to having Friday evenings to myself. She returned long after midnight. But a strange thing happened: somehow, quite selfishly, I found I didn't want to sacrifice that time to Jirka. Or was it that I didn't want to let an intruder, a stranger, into our flat?
I wasn't sure, and I needed to think it through. I wanted to creep off to my room to consider it, but my mother wouldn't let me.
When I took some emmental out of the fridge in the kitchen and started to nibble it bit by bit (in the evening, I don't eat anything except a little cheese, even when I'm hungry, and even though Jirka keeps on telling me I should put on weight -- perhaps just for that reason I want to slim down and make him mad), my mother came out of the living room and, despite the fact that she knows I can't stand it, she sat down next to me. She pushed the magazines I had been trying to read while I was eating to the other end of the table, and cleared her throat. She was in a proper tizzy, and was almost unable to speak -- she was always like that when she wanted to have a heart to heart.
"Ah, erm... you know, Monika, we have to talk about something.."
I stared at her reproachfully, without a word, and chewed my cheese. Why couldn't she leave me in peace, when I came home tired after a hectic day?
"I can't let it wait any longer. You're a grown woman now, and I see you're going out on dates with boys..."
"Mum, for God's sake, I've already read a whole library about sexual behaviour and contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. At school we constantly have some kind of compulsory sex education classes. I can't even imagine a more boring topic! So don't bloody start, I'm not a little girl!"
My mother flushed crimson and winced. She put on an important expression, which means that she frowned sternly, puckered her mouth, and started to take an incredibly long time to chose her words. She also started to sweat.
"You know that I myself never... never had... anything to do with a man... Well, in short, I think that you and I are different from other women. It's a very peculiar thing, and I've never spoken with you about it openly, because..." She threw her arms up helplessly, choked nervously, and then burst out: "Because you wouldn't believe it." She fell silent and looked at me almost pleadingly. She was waiting to see if I would buy it and whether I would hear her out.
I felt my blood pressure rising in response. What, for heaven's sake, was this supposed to mean? Did my mother have some kind of bizarre fixation? It was true that she had always avoided men for as long as I could remember, but... What could she have in mind? Was she perhaps a lesbian? Or was she terribly afraid of something?
"You told me that my father died before I was born," I reminded her.
"Well," my mother's crimson blush changed into a scatter of red blotches, spread unevenly over her ashen features, and she lowered her voice to the limit of audibility. "It wasn't that he died, exactly, it's more that... he was absorbed!"
"What?" I almost screamed. I was starting to feel genuinely afraid -- for her, perhaps for the whole of my world, my home -- but at that moment, I wasn't quite able to think it through to all the possible consequences.
"You know, I didn't believe my mother either, I was horrified when she started to hint that something was amiss. I thought then that she'd completely flipped her lid... but it was true. Did you know that, under certain circumstances, the embryos of certain animals -- mice, for example -- can be absorbed back into the womb? Perhaps when the female meets a more desirable male?"
No, I didn't know that. I shivered just to think of it. But in the final analysis, it was only something that happened to mice. And besides, an adult human male was not just a ball of cells like the embryo of a mouse.
I shook my head and shrugged by shoulders, both at once, unable to utter a word.
My mother continued brokenly: "My whole life... I've had the feeling that that man is somehow still alive in me. Step by step, I've discovered that other girls don't have the same masculine dreams I do. Do you think you also have something of that in you... something of father?"
She was so tense, she had stopped breathing. Perhaps she hoped I wouldn't know what she was talking about. I, however, knew at once, and all too well. My mother was not talking now about her partner, the man who had been my father, but about the man who fathered her. Often, it happened to me that memories or visions -- or I don't know what they could actually be -- surfaced in my mind, in which I had a man's body, in which I had been transmuted into a male form and sometimes even experienced sex as a man. It was a perfectly normal part of my world, but all the same, it seemed to me that other girls didn't know anything like it, and that in contrast they were aroused by things which had no effect on me. In these memories, I had a man's body, I felt my hard, muscular chest, my soft belly -- which, however, had a quite different shape from my real belly -- and my long, hairy legs, which wanted to take long, decisive steps. Most peculiar, and most disturbing of all, though, was understandably the notion that I had a penis: here was concentrated an intensity of sexual arousal, such as otherwise I did not know.
Yet, while it was a fact that other girls didn't talk about these things, did that have to mean that they didn't experience them? There are so many things, after all, one simply doesn't talk about! It occurred to me, suddenly, that my mother was probably a psychopath. It was hard to come to terms with this discovery so quickly, and to react in an appropriate manner. Flustered and uncertain, I smiled at her.
In that moment, it was as if an additional weight had settled down on her. Now she knew that we were both the same, that I knew what she had been talking about. She could go on: "It happens immediately, the first time you have intercourse with a man. It doesn't matter what kind of contraception you use, you will start developing an embryo. And he will start to be absorbed. You will ruin him. If you really love him, if you are dependent on him and you don't want to lose him, it will be... terrible for you."
I was all agog. "But, Mum, what if he uses a condom? Think about it, it just can't work like that! What if he used, let's say, a vibrator, or some other sex toy? Do you want to tell me that, even under these circumstances, I would become pregnant and he would be... absorbed?"
My mother shrugged her shoulders and chuckled softly. "You have a scientific mind. I never tried it. Perhaps it would never even occur to me to try such things. But I beg you -- promise me that you'll be careful."
"Hmmm," I put on a neutral face. I had decided I would have to keep a close eye on my mother and keep tabs on all the manifestations of her progressive psychological disorder. So many years of solitude... At the same time, though, I began to be gnawed by an imperceptible doubt: what if my mother was right? I had quite a mind to try it out.
"I have an empty flat, my parents are at their cottage," Jirka announced.
With these words he freed me from having to make the difficult decision between taking him home, continuing to suffer through those dreadful scenes in public, and giving up on her plan completely -- which, however, would have been extremely boring.
So we were going to have privacy. I hoped that I would finally get rid of my detested virginity, which when I compared myself to the other girls, was starting to turn me into a psychic cripple.
Not long afterwards we were walking down a street full of exhaust fumes on the way to his house. Of course I was a little agitated -- what if my mother was right? But I didn't believe it. I kept repeating to myself that, from a scientific point of view, it was nonsense. Maybe I'd better not tell him that I'd been to the family planning clinic for some pills, I thought. That way he would have to take care of contraception as well, and then perhaps it really would be impossible for anything to happen!
And on top of that I calmed myself with the cynical reflection that, even if my mother happened to be right, it would be quite a nice way to get rid of Jirka. Because my feelings towards him were getting to be truly ambivalent. His body was quite pleasant to the touch, but when I had to talk to him, he bored me, and when I imagined I would have to live with him for a longer period of time... No way!
The decor of his flat was loud and somewhat tasteless, lots of horridly garish draperies and a sideboard stuffed with cut glass and the like. He offered me a glass of beer and undressed me. Probably he was in a hurry: who knows when his parents were supposed to get back? He laid me flat on the couch and put a large towel under me. Hey, what if I start bleeding, I wondered? Somehow I wasn't afraid of anything and felt only an enormous curiosity. He turned on the radio to a station which was playing some down-at-heel pop music. He lay down next to me and started to run his hand over my body. "Are you looking forward to it?" he asked. I laughed, I don't even know why, probably nerves. A nonsensical question. How could I be looking forward to something I didn't know? It seemed to me that my response had disappointed him, but fortunately he didn't make a fuss about it. Gradually, I began to attune myself to the pleasant feelings which were being brought on by his foreplay, and later the sex act itself seemed like something long since (even if hazily) known. It was, however, completely different from those masculine memories which sometimes surfaced in my mind -- it was much less intense, just a gentle stroking or tickling, not genuine passion, the potent whirlwind of feeling that sometimes seized my body during those masculine fantasies.
The music on the radio changed to a spirited marching band and suddenly the whole situation began to seem ridiculous. Understandably, though, what pleased me most was that I had this experience behind me and that it had been neither repugnant, nor so marvellous that I would somehow be beside myself from it -- it had simply been pleasant, and I felt well enough satisfied.
"You want to tell you were a virgin?" he shook his head afterwards. He went to throw away the condom: he wrapped it in a paper napkin so his parents wouldn't find anything. But the strange thing was, as he walked around the room, all of a sudden he seemed to be almost translucent.
"I'm feeling a bit queasy," he complained, looking me over uncertainly. "I don't know when my parents are due back..."
"It's okay, I'll leave," I burst out hurriedly. Now I would only feel bored with him anyway.
It seemed to me that he was also quite relived when I said it. He escorted me to the door of the flat.
"Sorry I can't go with you to the tram," he apologised. "I still have to tidy up. To cover our traces and that kind of thing."
A quick peck goodbye on the cheek, and then the door shut behind me. But before I ran out, relieved, into the street, I heard the sound of vomiting from inside the flat. Doubt began to gnaw at me again. I hesitated, wondering whether I shouldn't go back to help him somehow, but then I headed off to catch the tram.
Two months later it was absolutely unambiguous. I had started to suffer from an upset stomach, and I felt an indefinable weight all over my body. Heaviest of all were my breasts, which from time to time even became quite painful. I wanted to sleep all the time. And of course my period was nowhere.
Jirka telephoned me twice. It wasn't that he wanted to get rid of me, he took it quite differently from myself -- seriously and responsibly! It was just that he felt so very peculiar -- he kept going from one doctor to another, he was on sick leave, but the diagnosis was somehow really strange -- and he didn't want to meet me until it was sorted out. I asked him about the symptoms, but his replies were evasive -- apparently there were a lot of them, they kept on changing and they were, as doctors like to say, non-specific. There was only one symptom he was willing to give away to me -- he was losing weight and he had lost his appetite.
"That serves you right for wanting to fatten me up," I replied sarcastically. But shivers were running up and down my spine. It was a crazy situation because everything was starting to confirm my mother's theory. Of course, I didn't tell anyone about my pregnancy, neither Jirka, nor my mother. I kept it strictly to myself and spent my time thinking about it constantly.
Then Jirka called me from the hospital. His voice was odd. I became aware that he was leaving out a lot of words.
"Somehow I can't walk any more... Monika, the doctors -- what could it be? And so I -- I've stopped enjoying this... What if you came to visit me after all? Come -- to see me! Come!!"
It occurred to me that he was in a proper mess, though maybe I was in one, too. But on the other hand, it's a fairly normal thing to have an illegitimate child during one's studies. I'd get over it. I almost fainted, though, when I imagined I would have to be like my mother... to spend my whole life avoiding men. Or maybe I could... but no, that wasn't possible. To pay for every sexual encounter with pregnancy and absorption... Good God, I jumped, did that mean I had truly come to believe it? Was it not that I had just gone as crazy as my mother?
I decided that I had to go and visit Jirka.
As a matter of fact, I probably never liked him very much, but the sight of him in the hospital would have shaken anybody -- it wasn't important any longer who the patient was.
He looked like a skeleton, like one of those photos that one sometimes sees in the newspapers from countries where there is famine and war. He was covered only by pale, yellowish skin and a thin layer of atrophied muscles. Except he didn't have the same kind of oversize skull and protuberant joints that famine victims tend to have. And somehow that was especially horrifying. His skull and his long bones were growing smaller. I wondered whether the doctors had measured him and whether they were at least a little surprised. His head now looked as if it had been dried out by one of those tribes of cannibals who process human heads as trophies. His goggly eyes gleamed milky white and were barely able to recognise me. It was also evident that he was mentally absent for whole minutes at a time, uttering only monosyllabic cries, which made no sense.
"I... I am... inside you... and you... Mother... no, please, no..."
For one insane moment it occurred to me that I had become his mother.
When I returned home, everything was visible on me at a single glance. I barely made it to the armchair in the living room and covered my face with my palms in nervous exhaustion. My mother sat down opposite me and for a long time we were silent. I understood that, from this time on, I would no longer have any reason to doubt my mother's attempts to confide in me. Because now at last I believed her.
After a while, my mother sighed. "Lord, those men..."
"What should I do?" I cried. I was on the verge of a fit of hysterics, only I had never had one before, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. But I felt like crying and breaking something brutally into little pieces, both at once.
My mother was stroking my hair, which was not her habit. "I knew it had to happen someday," she said. "I've never managed to find out what causes it. Perhaps some kind of terrible natural force, some kind of strange mutation which ensures that we women will never die out, no matter what the circumstances..."
"So it's going to be... a girl?" I looked at her.
"But... that's illogical. Surely that means the total number of people in the world would keep getting smaller, if..."
"Not people," my mother replied calmly. "Men!"
"Jesus Christ! And what if... what if I now went for an abortion?"
My mother stared at me, her eyes held wide in horror. "That's something which none of us has ever tried so far. Perhaps it would lead to something... terrible."
A picture occurred to me of Jirka coming to his senses in the operating theatre in the form of the strange phantasm, the zombie, the half-human creature that he now was, and living that way for several more decades. At the same time, though, something in my mother's outburst had brought me up short.
"Do you mean to say that... that you're not alone? That you know of other women who...?"
My mother leaned towards me and whispered in my ear. "You know how every Friday I go out for an evening in the cafe with my women friends? Well... it isn't a cafe. Once you've had the baby, it'll be time for me to introduce you to our company."
Shivers were running up and down my spine again, but at the same time I realised that here was the explanation of my mother's sex life. And altogether of how she managed to live in a relatively balanced way among people who were biologically so utterly dissimilar.
I felt a sense of kinship for my sisters.
And it also occurred to me that their meetings -- I already had an inkling that they were not so much a question of polite conversation over coffee, as of a bizarre, phantasmagorical orgy -- might finally bring me the sharp, intense feeling of sexual ecstasy I could never hope to have with a man.
I understood that the man I had inside me -- like the man inside my mother and the man inside my daughter -- might yet bring me a great deal of pleasure.