The following is from Guadalupe Nettel’s Still Born.
Nettel was born in Mexico and grew up between Mexico and France. She is the author of the international award winning novels El huésped [The Guest], The Body Where I Was Born, and After the Winter, as well as three collections of short stories. Her work has been translated into more than fifteen languages. She currently lives in Mexico City where she’s the director of the magazine Revista de la Universidad de México.
At that time in my life, travelling was very important to me. Touching down in far-off countries I knew very little about, crossing them by land, on foot or in ramshackle buses, and discovering their culture and cuisine were amongst the pleasures of this world which it never even occurred to me to consider giving up. I did part of my studies outside Mexico. Despite my precarious existence back then, I now see this time as the most light-hearted phase of my life. A little bit of booze and a couple of friends were all that were needed to transform any evening into a party. We were young and, unlike now, staying up late did not take a toll on our bodies. Living in France, even with very little money, gave me the chance to explore other continents. When I stayed in Paris, I spent many hours reading in libraries, going to the theatre, and hanging out in bars and nightclubs. None of this is compatible with motherhood. Women with children cannot live that way. At least not during the first few years of the child’s upbringing. In order to allow themselves a simple afternoon at the cinema or dinner at someone else’s house, they need to plan far in advance, get hold of a babysitter, or convince their husbands to take care of the children for them. This is why, whenever things started to get serious with a man, I would explain to him that with me he could never reproduce. If he argued or some sign of sadness or dissent began to surface on his face, I would immediately cite the earth’s overpopulation, a compelling reason and one that was sufficiently humanitarian to prevent him from branding me as bitter or, worse still, selfish, as those of us who have decided to escape the role historically accorded to our sex tend to be called.
Unlike my mother’s generation, for whom it was abnormal not to have children, many women in my own age group chose to abstain. My friends, for instance, could be divided into two groups of equal size: those who considered relinquishing their freedom and sacrificing themselves for the sake of the species, and those who were prepared to accept the disgrace heaped on them by society and family as long as they could preserve their autonomy. Each one justified their position with arguments of substance. Naturally, I got along better with the second group, which included Alina.
We met in our twenties, during that period which is still considered the best age to procreate in many societies, although we both felt a similar aversion to what we used to call, looking knowingly at each other, ‘the human shackles’. I was studying for a PhD in literature, and neither my student grant nor my freelance status came close to providing me with any sort of financial security. Alina had a demanding but well-paid job at an arts centre and was doing all she could to train at the same time in arts and cultural management. Although her income was double mine, she sent a large part of it back home to her family: her father had been ill for several years, and lived alone in a village in Veracruz, while her mother was trying to get over a recent stroke. Alina had arrived very early at that stage of life when our parents depend upon us. How would she have been able to take care of a child on top of that?
In that period of my life, I was a big fan of the art of divination in all its forms, palmistry and tarot in particular. I remember that one day, after a long party whose aftermath included two broken glasses and a graveyard of empty bottles out on the balcony, Alina and I were alone in my apartment. We sat and listened to the footsteps of the last guest to leave echo down the Rue Vieille du Temple, utterly deserted at that early hour. I asked if she would let me read her cards. She agreed, purely to humour me, since she’s always been a pragmatic woman and found the idea of receiving messages from invisible forces completely ridiculous. The tarot must have seemed like a game to her, like any other. The spread I chose that night was an ambitious one and encompassed the rest of her life. Alina cut the pack a few times, then placed it on the table, in the positions I showed her. When all the cards were in place, I began turning them over slowly, partly because of how drunk I was, partly to give the moment a touch of theatre. Meanwhile, the story gradually appeared, the way a photograph is revealed when we plunge it into silver nitrate. In the middle of the layout were The Empress, the Six of Swords, Death and the Hanged Man. Death – the thirteenth arcana, which in many tarot decks does not even have a name – is a card that doesn’t always mean an actual passing, but brings with it a profound, radical change. Everything pointed towards a tragedy that would upset the course of her existence, perhaps even cut it short in one fell swoop. I was forced to hide my vexation. Alina must have noticed my disconcerted expression because she asked, her voice worried, what it was that I was reading.
‘It says here that you’ll be a mother and that your life will become totally cloistered,’ I blurted out, with a playful grin.
Alina shook her head vehemently and laughed, no doubt assuming I was pulling her leg. But her large black eyes stared questioningly at me and in their depths I made out a glimmer of unease. We carried on drinking and a couple of hours later, when we had finished the last bottle of wine, I said goodbye to my friend at the door to the apartment block. I climbed the stairs back up to my place and got into bed, feeling frightened by what I had seen.
A few months later, Alina decided to return to Mexico where she found a good job in an art gallery. I, meanwhile, stayed in France for one more year and then, when I’d finished my master’s, set off travelling around South Asia. I trekked across valleys and through mountain paths. I visited temples and sites of Buddhist pilgrimage. I was particularly drawn to the nuns with their brown habits and shaved heads, women who had decided to renounce family life in order to devote themselves to study and meditation. I would sit in silence a few feet away, listening to them chant in voices so different from the guttural chants of the lamas, or reciting sutras that spoke of liberation and an end to suffering. Distance is unerring proof of friendship. Occasionally it lays waste to it, as a frost can do to a good harvest. But this wasn’t what happened between Alina and me. We continued to write and to call each other often, informing one another of the most noteworthy episodes in our lives – the appearance of Aurelio in hers, her father’s ill health, my choice of thesis topic – and so the affection we already had for one another was steadily reinforced.
It is easy, when we are young, to have ideals and to live according to them. What is more complicated is acting consistently over time, and in spite of the challenges life puts in our way. Shortly after I turned thirty-three, I began to notice the presence – the appeal, even – of children. For two years, I had been living with an artist from Asturias, who would spend hours in our apartment devoted to his work, impregnating the air of our shared space with the heady scent of his oil paints. His name was Juan. Unlike me, he knew how to be around children, and enjoyed it. If he came across a child when we were out at the park or at a friend’s house, he would stop what he was doing to go and talk to them. I don’t know if it was his influence or that of my own body, but while we were together, I began to let my guard down. Although I still did not choose to approach them, kids did now arouse a certain amount of curiosity in me. I liked seeing them with their little backpacks on their backs as they left the school gates or walked down the street, heading for the metro. I looked at them as you would a ripe fruit when you’re hungry. Without realizing it, I began to notice pregnant women, too. I saw them everywhere, as if their numbers had multiplied all of a sudden, and when I came across one at a party or in the queue at the cinema, it wasn’t unusual for me to strike up a conversation with them, such was the curiosity they inspired in me. I needed to understand them, to know if they had really chosen this fate or if, on the contrary, they were merely resignedly accepting a social or familial demand. How much did their mothers, their partners, their female friends have to do with this decision?
One wintry Saturday morning, as we lazed around in bed, Juan and I brought up the topic of reproduction. He told me he really wanted to have a child, and was just waiting for me to give him the green light. He was – it should be said – a very sweet man, and would no doubt be so as a father, too. In my mind I saw images of the two of us caring for a baby together, checking the temperature of the water for a bath or pushing a little pram along the streets. This family life was there for me, within arm’s reach. We would simply have to leave the condom in its wrapper on the bedside table, maybe only once, for me to cross the threshold into maternity. Just as someone who, without ever having contemplated suicide, allows themselves to be seduced by the abyss from the top of a skyscraper, I felt the lure of pregnancy. Juan brushed a strand of hair from my face and began to kiss me deeply. I could feel against my thigh that he was hard, ready to immediately fulfil the dictates of nature. Enthralled, I gave in to this irresistible force for a few minutes. Then – at last – my survival instinct, dormant up until that point, kicked in, and I leapt out of bed. Despite the snow falling outside, I ran out to the terrace and lit a cigarette. I told myself that my biological clock had overpowered my reason. Unless I found a sufficiently effective strategy to resist, the life I had taken such pains to build for myself would be in grave danger.
I was silent for the rest of the weekend. On Monday I turned up at my gynaecologist’s office without an appointment and asked him to tie my tubes. After asking me a series of questions to gauge how certain I was, the doctor looked at his diary. I had the surgery that same week, convinced I’d made the best decision of my life. The surgeon did his job skilfully, but while I was recuperating in the hospital, I got an infection caused by one of those superbugs are so hard to eradicate. I returned home with a fever and spent several days like that without telling anyone what I’d done, not even Juan. Afterwards, when I was given the all-clear, I called Alina, feeling sure that only she would be able to understand me.
From then on, things with Juan started to fall apart. Whereas before we used to enjoy sitting in silence together, I reading while he painted in his studio, watching old films or walking through the cemetery near where we lived, now we had the sense that we were wasting our time. Patience slowly deserted us. We drove each other to despair. It wasn’t a long, drawn-out ending, nor a particularly painful break-up, but simply the realization that we had different plans for our lives. I was the one who moved out of the apartment. I left with three suitcases which I deposited in a friend’s basement, and then searched for the cheapest flight I could find to Kathmandu and spent a month roaming around various monasteries. While I was there, Juan wrote me a couple of emails which I read in Pharping’s rundown, dusty internet café. His messages were a sort of final flourish to explain the obvious. I read them out of respect for our time together, predicting the content, until in one of the later emails he told me he was going out with someone, a Canadian sculptor he had met at a symposium, and that they were expecting a baby. ‘I know you, Laura – you wouldn’t want to find out from someone else, so I thought it best to tell you myself.’ The news made me sad, but in a way I think it helped me cut ties with the past. It was time to make a radical change in my life. I decided to leave Paris and go back to Mexico to finish writing my thesis there.
From Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey. Used with permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2023 by Guadalupe Nettel. Translation Copyright © 2023 by Rosalind Harvey.