Kenneth Radu


 

Kenneth Radu has published several books including a memoir, The Devil is Clever (HarperCollins Canada), and three collections of stories, among them A Private Performance (Montreal: Vehicule Press) which won the Quebec Federation of Writers' Award for best English-language fiction. His writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming online in Troubador 21, Danse Macabre, vis a tergo, Four-Cornered Universe, Spilt Milk, Clearfield Review and elsewhere. He lives in Quebec. A new collection of his short stories will be released in 2010 by DC Books of Montreal.


 

 
Waters

 

                                              

Just how was she expected to write a poem under these conditions? Really, you’d think people would have some consideration for a pregnant poet huffing up the stairs carrying a hefty unborn child due any week now, as well as a satchel bulging with student essays on Shelley and Keats. She only had to teach two days a week, rather than four, having scheduled both her classes on Tuesday and Thursday morning, but hauling this humongous baby around didn’t make her job easier. By three in the afternoon she would have fulfilled her office hour requirement and could mercifully leave.

And if just one more person actually touched her belly, she’d eviscerate him on the spot. It was a wonder they didn’t fixate on her enlarged breasts although she suspected more than one male of sly glances. Pregnancy didn’t give anyone the right to regard her as public property. Did they believe that a ballooned belly provided a magical cure for scrofula or sudden eloquence like a kiss on the frigging Blarney Stone? She had nearly wrenched her back when she had leaned backwards over the castle’s parapet to kiss the rock. Supposedly awarded with the gift of gab, if successful. Although a teacher and poet, kiss the rock she did, risking health and limb for the bit of blue stone absurdity in Ireland. Of all the legendary stories about the its  provenance, she preferred the one about Moses hitting a rock with his staff and out gushed divine water to satisfy the thirst of Israelites, dusty from desert wanderings. In a poem she made good use of that biblical rock which had unaccountably found its way to an Irish castle.

Between bouts of Braxton Hicks contractions and forced bowel movements, she was now working on a series of ironic mother poems clotted with blood, umbilical and haemorrhoidal imagery. She needed only get the rhythm and structure right, everything depended upon the music. At least she had gotten rid of the baby’s father who drained more psychic and creative energy than he was worth. Well, gotten rid of wasn’t quite accurate: one month ago George had simply walked out of the flat with a suitcase, while she had been sitting on the toilet which the landlord still hadn’t replaced or repaired: it didn’t flush properly and it leaked. His joy over the forthcoming birth had attenuated in a matter of weeks, even though it had initially been his idea: let’s have a baby, he had said. At first resistant, then reluctant, then surprised by changes in her attitude as the foetus grew, she caressed her belly’s stretch marks in front of a mirror and believed that it was possible to love without criticism, to be loved unstintingly in return. 

The night before they had battled again over minor domestic chores: was it too much to ask that he buy a few groceries, prepare supper, clean up the kitchen?. After all, she brought the money home while he supposedly composed on the out-of-tune piano which had been driving her crazy these past few months. The last thing she needed was the atonal riffs of his experimental jazz. She had cried on the spot while George retreated to the piano and, of all things, improvised!  Let’s have a baby, indeed!

Most of the office doors were closed, so she didn’t have to speak to anyone or answer their interminable questions about due date --- really, she should send a frigging memo around, a mass e-mailing, to remind people of the date to save them the trouble of asking for the umpteenth time.

“Hey, Patty, how’s it going?”

God help her, of all people, it had to be Dieter, the department’s other poet, she’d meet in the corridor.

“The name’s Patricia, I’ll thank you to use it.”

“Oh boy, the hormones slapping your around again this morning, mother?”

Dieter had never forgiven her for winning a local book award for best collection of English language poetry in Quebec when all the world knew, according to Dieter, that his volume of verse published in the same year was clearly superior. The judges had been academic, tone-deaf cretins of the worst kind, he proclaimed to all and sundry. Since then he had adopted a familiar, condescending attitude towards her because “were intrinsic merit seen/The turkey has the whiter skin.” Dieter was forever clubbing you with quotations and expecting vociferous admiration for the favour. She had shot back with “Success is counted sweetest/By those who ne’er succeed/To comprehend a nectar/Requires sorest need.”

“Figures, you’d go for Dickinson in a big way. Greeting card shit.”

This morning he surprisingly retreated before entering another poetic fray. She didn’t have to exchange greetings with anyone else, not that many people in the department aroused her interest. With the exceptional few who did, she conversed. Too avoid pretending interest where none existed, she had adroitly developed this aura of preoccupation. As a poet in keeping in tune with cosmic harmonies, they wouldn’t expect her to descend to the level of common courtesy and interrupt the rhythms of poetic consciousness.

Finally reaching her office Patricia shut the door hard and flopped down on her swivel chair in front of the computer. If only she could unburden herself, give birth on her desk would be good, and get the ordeal over with, not to mention instant class cancellation and pregnancy leave. Having attended all the Lamaze classes, she had prepared herself well, alone, despite the instructing nurse’s advice that someone else really should be practising the techniques with her. She had learned how to breathe and puffed her breathe as religiously as a nun intoning daily chants. She had opted for natural childbirth. The doctor had insisted that when push came to shove, and Patricia had to push, well, she would be begging for a painkiller. To be fair he had not used the word begging.

She had hoped to find a female obstetrician who might have understood her objections to the male medical establishment. An episiotomy being more than likely, local anaesthesia was not to be despised. “An anaesthetist will be present in the delivery room, in case you change your mind,” the doctor had cautioned during her last examination. He didn’t appreciate the fierce energy of her conviction: she would bring life into the world her way or not at all, just the way she wrote her verse. Had she not overcome temptation to abort in the first and second trimester, given the inconvenience, money, time, and her partner’s lack of enthusiasm. In the bottom drawer of her filing cabinet lay a yellow receiving blanket, just in case nature summoned her to deliver while marking essays. She would be alone with the baby, after all, a terrifying thought until she began buying onesies and disposable diapers and falling into the romance of motherhood. She would never abandon her baby, not like its father. Well, if her waters burst, silly girl, obviously an ambulance would be called, or colleagues would rush to her aid, her reputation for standoffishness notwithstanding. We did not quite live in a vacuum, did we?

Patricia entered her classroom and regarded her students’ collective intelligence like a kind of vacuum she could ironically touch as if it were a monumental obstacle over which she had to climb using ropes, carabiners, crampons, pitons and axes. She hadn’t crawled up the side of a mountain since the beginning of her second trimester, her feet too swollen to fit comfortably in the boots. Dropping the papers on the desk in front of the white board, she scanned the rows of students whose collective look was one of resigned inertia. How could she even begin to awaken them to the beauty of poetry, lord knows she had valiantly tried, and if she couldn’t do it, who then could?  To demonstrate that poets were real and vital people had been her purpose, and she had read her works passionately.

“Okay, guys, you can break up the cabal now.” Just once she’d be grateful if she didn’t have to begin every class by warning the jocks in the corner not to confabulate without her permission. She rubbed her stomach, feeling a twitch and a uterine rumble, the twitch becoming something like a contraction, yet another false alarm. She didn’t know if her belly fascinated or repelled her students, certainly many thought it a curiosity as she often joked about her condition, if only to show she was the most natural person on the face of the earth and look how amazing childbirth was. And, listen, she had just written a poem she wanted to share with them.

 “Anyone have a cell phone here in case I need you to call for help?”

All the hands went up. Stupid question. Who didn’t among the student body have a cell phone on their person, and other assorted electronic paraphernalia? How many times had she pulled out wires from unsuspecting ears? She thought her tone jovial and self-mocking, but saw no approving smiles on their faces. Wasn’t impending childbirth supposed to instil awe and compassion?

And then she felt a trickle down her right inner thigh. God help her, no. Yes, the stream flowed, tickling, all the way down the inside of her jeans, especially designed to stretch with the pregnancy. Sweet Jesus, it wasn’t urine which would have been horrendously embarrassing. She had just told the students that she wasn’t pleased with the collective results of the essays on the Romantic poets. The flow of amniotic fluid intensified, although not into  what she would have described as the folkloric gush women laughed about. She had hoped this would happen during sleep. To protect her mattress, she had covered it with a rubber sheet.. Wasn’t she supposed to waken from dreams of waterfalls? Odd, once she recognized the inevitable, an image from Shelly’s Adonais flooded her mind: “here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Her students would soon forget her, as if she had never been. Her child could never forget her, that was a saving grace, surely.

A murmur rippled through the students, she had suddenly riveted their attention. Perhaps they saw a dark line of damp from crotch to ankle. Perhaps a puddle was forming at her feet. She dared not look down. A fleeting mad thought: here was a desk, lie down and proceed to deliver with no more difficulty than paddling a canoe safely through a turbulent waters at which she was particularly adept. True, a wave on Lake Champlain two summers ago had capsized her craft. Having worn an orange life-jacket, she had kept her head above water and was rescued.

“Would someone please distribute the essays? I want you all to read Keats’ Ode to Autumn for next class. If I’m not here, a substitute teacher will be. I shall return as soon as it is conveniently possible.”

One of the jocks noisily came forward and to her amazement asked if she needed assistance.

“Thank you, Frankie, I don’t. Just hand back the essays for me, would you? I need to make an important phone call.”

Yes, Patricia was certain she had smiled, despite the downward clench of her mouth, an involuntary reaction to her groaning belly. She met neither students nor colleagues in the hallway, most of whom would be in class. Just before opening her office door, shaken by a sudden contraction which surged over her breathing techniques like a violent wave, Patricia gripped the knob for support. She swore that her water broke at that instant and plummeted in full force, had in fact gushed. She did not feel wet, but her womb roiled with activity. Seeing no puddle, pushing the door open and reaching for her desk, now puffing fiercely, Patricia attributed the sensations to the utterly new, not quite poetic experience, of trying to delay the inevitable and give birth at the same time. 

Copyright  © 2010 Kenneth Radu