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All The Anxious Girls on Earth


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for Dr. Spock, R.l.P

The child has everything it could possibly want and now it comes to you, this evening after the first day of junior kindergarten, and says, "I'd like some pajamas."

This child who already has a goldfish and rabbits (yet unnamed), a music box with one of those tiny ballerinas that pop up and twirl slowly to Swan Lake, a porcelain tea set bearing the likeness of that little Parisienne Madeline, a skipping rope (yet unused), a horse (named Conan, after her favourite late-night talk-show host), her own home page and Internet account, and an Air Miles card boasting 29,342 points; this child who has an indoor speeds-skating oval (which, you must admit, you and your wife have tried out, once maybe, zipping along feeling like Hans Brinker and his love, cheeks ruddy, hand in misted hand, though only when the child wasn't around as you would never encroach so aggressively upon the child's space); this child who has a safety deposit box containing the following: a chunk of the Berlin Wall, a swatch from the Shroud of Turin, and a signed, first-edition Tropic of Cancer; this child who has an older sister, stillborn, whom the child keeps in a jar of formaldehyde hidden away someplace known only to the child (although you suspect she has traded the former with a friend up the street for a Pocahontas poster, but, well, kids will be kids); this child of whom you still carry an ultrasound photograph in your wallet from the time before you even knew she would be a she (not that you cared), who is the glue that holds your marriage together, who is the indelible ink of your heart, who is now standing in front of you saying that all the other children at school have pajamas.

You have, up until now, found it difficult, and largely unnecessary, to deny your child anything. Somewhere up there, invisible to the naked eye, orbits a man-made satellite named in her honour, and it wasn't cheap. Would that it were a planet. But pajamas?

What kind of place is this school where children of all races and abilities learn together in harmony and yet claim to all have pajamas? (Note: Find out who this Italian pedagogue Montessori really is and what kind of social experiment he or she is up to.) You might as well be sending the child to that public school down the block where syringes litter the schoolyard like space debris and twelve-year-old girls hanging around the sagging metal fence claim to be able to do outrageous things with their sturdy, black-licorice-stained lips.

Isn't there a point in a child's life, in your life together as parents and child, that you have to lay down the law?

"Pussywillow, kittycat, caramel corn, l'il Amy March, pigeon pie, Sailor Moon, apple-o'-my-eye" you say, carefully modulating your tone so as to spare the child any distress, "whatever do you need pajamas for?"

Innocently, not aware that she's about to bring the whole sound structure of your Benzedrine-fuelled lives down upon your heads, she leans her face adorably to one side, folds both tiny hands together in a perfect simulacrum of prayer, and presses them alongside her tilted cheek.

"For sleeping," the child says.

And surely as if it were actually happening, the joists in the ceiling groan and the house shifts on its foundations. Plaster dust swirls down thick and chalky as you struggle to see the child through the sudden whiteout, through this authentic, circa 1890s Manitoba snowstorm. The wind howls in your ears, your frostbitten toes and left hand will need amputating. In your arms there's an infant in a coarse saddle blanket who'll be stiff as a board soon, a blue boy. You've only completed grade five. Cows are all you've ever learned anything about, the only thing you're good at, and now they're stuck far out in the fields, the sky lowering down on them. You're Swedish, they won't let you forget. They (they, them) say you smell. It is your duty to brood. Your wife, dear God... but right now all you can think, brain hot with jumbled coals, is, read Dog, save my child.

But the child is still standing there in front of you in the kitchen, bathed in halogen light, smiling sweetly, the corners of her mouth smudged chocolatey from an Energy Bar, saying, "For sleeping."

The chamber ensemble you've engaged to accompany all of the child's pronouncements stirs and launches into Schubert's string quartet in D minor, but you abruptly hold up the palm of your hand. The musicians move closer together, chairs squealing against the linoleum, and begin to mutter quietly among themselves, bows across their laps.

These other children sleep? When do they have time for ballet and kick-boxing, glass-blowing and oenology, snowboarding and target practice? And what about citizenship—-staffing polling stations, canvassing door-to-door for the Vancouver Aquarium's new whale pool, and volunteering at St. Paul's Eating Disorders Clinic, not to mention all those guided tours to the sewage treatment plant on Annacis Island? How do they keep up? Can these children do a triple lutz? Can they even drive a four-by-four? Have they climbed K-2 yet (without oxygen)?

Upstairs, your wife is on-line, preregistering the child for an undergraduate year abroad at either the University of Strasbourg or the University of Kyoto (playing it safe, as neither of you, even after commissioning an exhaustive poll with a margin of sampling error of +/-3.5 per cent, can predict with any degree of accuracy whether the next century belongs to the new Europe or the Pacific Rim). She is coolly oblivious to the drama unfolding down here in the kitchen. You seek to distract the child. "Let's check with mom, cherry popsicle. Meanwhile, why don't you practice some composition?" The child is currently undertaking the score for an opéra bouffe and appears to have a nice light touch. The chamber players, glancing over her shoulder at the computer screen, have more than once nodded their honest salt-and-pepper heads in approval.

She says she prefers to finish the chess game you started last week. You want to concentrate, give it your best shot, but the queen's knight, as you lower your hand to advance its pawn, flares its nostrils, snorting steam hot enough to scald your fingertips.

Your wife descends half an hour later, looking marvellously thin and fingering the buttons on her blouse.

"Zöe," she says, sitting down on the bottom stair and calling to her daughter. Every day the child has a new name but none of them stick, no name ever seems le nom juste. Now you are at the end of the alphabet and must start again. Tomorrow the child will be Amelia or Agnes or Andrea or Aphrodite. And she will react accordingly, trying on the name like a new swimsuit, squirming a little--sometimes in discomfort, sometimes in delight. Tamara was one she liked, but it made her a touch too dreamy for your tastes. Other names make her sweat, like Debbie. "I feel fat" she had complained all day. And hadn't her inner thighs rubbed together a little, her tiny OshKosh corduroys singing like crickets when she walked?

Your wife unbuttons her blouse and the child settles herself into her mother's lap. The child has lost two of her milk teeth already and has grown a snaggletooth. So it was decided last month that braces were in order. The child's smile will be beautiful, but your wife's breasts are a mess of scrapes and hard-blooming bruises. You've discussed weaning the child, but not with any real conviction. You both know that nothing is as good for a child as mother's milk, and nothing is too good for the child. And besides, it keeps your wife's breasts large and the rest of her body thin, which pleases you both.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the space between the two of you was large and growing. At first the size of an audible sigh, then an American-style football field, it became, over the course of a few years, a tundra of migrating caribou which, viewed from above through the window of a turbulent single-engine, resembled a swift, dirty river, but from up close thundered by so loud and hard your heart almost stopped. Now the space between you is the size and shape of one small child, a not unbridgeable distance. For there is always the child to consider. The things it would know. The things it might choose to imagine.

All night long, you and your wife discuss this pajama thing in hushed tones, in hushed Latvian tones, as that is the only language, living or dead, that your child has yet to master. Unaware of what is at stake, the child has various feng shui manuals opened up on the living-room rug and is carefully rearranging the furniture in order to maximize the flow of positive ch'i. Every so often she implores you to help her drag the Eames chair or the Nienkämper couch to another location. She's so small and determined that it almost cracks you in two. The various objects, lined up on the mantel, look anxious.

The tired eyes of your wife are a holy purple--like the cloths draped over statues in churches at Easter--and tissue-paper thin. It's true that none of you have slept since the night the child was a giddy blue line in the home pregnancy kit--some four years, eleven months, twenty-three days and six hours ago. A blue line wavering like a mirage that you and your wife regarded together as you sat on the cold edge of the tub and she on the toilet seat, both electrocuted with joy. It's true that you have pouches under your own eyes the size and heft of a kilo of coke and that the skin over your skull feels like Saran Wrap pulled tight and airless. Sometimes, sitting at your desk at work, you'll jerk violently as if breaking a fall, much like you used to do in your sleep, but you won't be sleeping. On the Burrard SkyTrain platform you've visualized jumping, a quick belly flop onto the tracks, just to relieve the pressure in your head. It's true that the child's eyes are so wide sometimes and so glassy that they look like they might just pop out and land in the soup.

The doorbell rings. Your wife yelps, even though the visit isn't unexpected. "I actually yelped," she says, forcing a laugh, because the child now looks worried. It's not all the moonlighting you both do that your wife minds, but this. Guys named Dougie and Chin coming to the back door with envelopes of money at 4:00 A.M. You get up, your knees popping stiffly, and go take the package out of the hall linen closet where it's shoved in behind the Christmas table runner, a porridge of guilt assembling in your gut. Your wife folds and unfolds the cuff of her blouse. The child is on tiptoes, reaching for the stars, her whole body vibrating like piano wire.

In the suburbs outside of Tokyo, just across the ocean, the next day's sun is already shining and schoolchildren rain from the sky, their smart little backpacks like parachutes that won't open. They spill off balconies like thread unspooling. They slip through your fingers. They land in your coffee, jangling your nerves.

The child is kneeling on the front windowsill when you get back, looking out into the darkness, silently working her way through the periodic table, her sweet milk breath misting the glass as she mouths the names of the chemicals. The chamber players play Prokofiev's string quartet no. 1 in B minor, music so discordant yet compelling it occurs to you that it could only have come to him in a sea-pitched dream. Your wife folds and unfolds the cuff of her blouse. The door of the hall closet is ajar.

The child turns her head and says, in a voice on tiptoes, vibrating like piano wire, "Radon, a radioactive, gaseous, chemical element formed, together with alpha rays, as a first product in the atomic disintegration of radium: symbol, Rn; at. wt., 222.00; at. no., 86; sp. gr., 973 g/l; melt pt., -71° C; boil. pt., -68 ° C"

The music folds and unfolds.

Tomorrow, you and your wife just might send the child out with the nanny to find some pajamas.

And tomorrow night, tomorrow night you might turn out the lights, and with your wife pressed to your stomach in one of your old T-shirts, sore breasts leaking, and with you naked because you're always so hot, and with your daughter in her new pajamas (my jammies, she'll call them, already one step ahead of you), all three of you will close your eyes and try very hard to sleep. Just as a lark. To see what it's like.

A child, after all, must be resilient enough to take any curveball life throws at it. But a terrible fear stalks the neighbourhood of your heart, as you think you may be unleashing a force you can't control, some yet undiscovered monster.


 
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Excerpted from All the Anxious Girls on Earth by Zsuzsi Gartner. Copyright © 2000 by Zsuzsi Gartner. Excerpted by permission of Anchor Books, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.