A diaristic exploration of procrastination, pregnancy, and art
The day before Cyrus Console and his pregnant wife leave for a monthlong visit to Romania, they receive troubling news—the fetus she’s carrying is at elevated risk for Down syndrome. As the trip unfolds, his worry spirals into broader meditations on parenthood, language, addiction, love, marriage, and the passage and management of time. In and among the cities of Roman, Iasi, and Bucharest, Console chronicles his loving but comically awkward interactions with friends and family, taking place as they do in a language and culture unfamiliar to him.
The resulting travel diary moves beyond daily life to delve into the enigmas of art, suffering, creativity, and family. Mixing memory with acute observations on everything from chess and stray dogs to heartbreak and dreamscape, Romanian Notebook turns the anxiety and rumination of the expectant parent into a deeper way of thinking about the human condition.
Paperback, FSG Originals, 2017read an excerpt
A diaristic exploration of procrastination, pregnancy, and art
An excerpt from Romanian Notebook
Tinus, a Latin suffix forming adjectives from adverbs of time, for example pristinus, “former,” “previous,” “ancient,” “old,” from classical Latin prior, “in front,” “previous,” “former,” “earlier,” “elder,” “superior,” “more important.”
Often I start a work of writing by looking up key terms in the Oxford English Dictionary, a practice whose chief virtue is that it leaves the work itself unchanged.
Thus pristine, “unspoilt by human interference,” “untouched,” “pure.” “Of something natural,” the entry stipulates. Or Old French crastin, “the day after (any feast),” from crastinus, “morrow,” from cras, “tomorrow.”
For “tomorrow” is an adverb of time.
We leave in turmoil because Paula’s nineteen-week ultrasound has shown a bright spot in the fetal heart, “in baby’s heart,” as the technician phrases it.
Fifteen minutes pass in no particular order; the young doctor arrives. Everything looks great, she says, I am required to say, to talk to you about this one thing, the bright spot here, in baby’s heart, which is associated with in creased risk for Down syndrome. Your numbers are still overwhelmingly good.
I say, can you tell us more quantitatively about what this does to our risk. The doctor crosses her arms over her chest. I want to high-five you for these numbers, she says.
I try to keep her in the room while I come up with a concrete question to put to her—a process my mounting alarm makes both urgent and impossible, and as a result of which, I think, whatever memories these moments form are recorded either in such a manner, or in such a location, as to render them mostly inaccessible now, in the days or years that follow.
I say, tell me what term, in order to learn more about the bright spot, we would need to put into the search engine.
“Echogenic intracardiac focus,” thought to result from calcareous mineral deposits in the tissue, transient and effectively meaningless. I get out something about “plans for the pregnancy should further blood work indicate chromosomal abnormality.” The high style into which I find myself slipping is a strange, dependable symptom of my anxiety.
I think about Du Fu, China’s greatest poet, so they say, how he fails the civil service exam owing to the intricacy of his prose, then waits eleven years before making a second attempt, in 746, the year the prime minister, probably to discourage rivals, grades every exam as fail.
“And the second half of that sentence is,” the doctor says, a turn of phrase I experience as hostile. Maybe I have interrupted her—maybe the literary speech has offended her—I forget what comes after this. At or beyond gestational age of twenty-two weeks it is forbidden, she says, in Missouri or Kansas to terminate pregnancy.
In my days as father-to-be I feel among midwestern medical professionals, with their unvarying diction of “this white band here is baby’s little diaphragm, and these are baby’s little toes,” that when I speak the word “fetus”—a term descending through a cloud of much older terms related to nursing, sucking, and bearing fruit—they judge me already as baby killer, or worse, atheist, and now that I ask about abortion explicitly I bear the weight of this judgment, illusory or not, the more heavily.
But I must think of it as a fetus, never as a baby, because there remain so many weeks in which miscarriage or worse, progressively worse, feels likely to occur, and to lose a fetus would be a very different thing than to bury a child. I read nurses’ discussion forums about fetal demise, stillbirth, how long to allow the mother to stay with the body, hours, days, how to advise her of natural processes of degradation and decay.
The phrase clings and turns like a bright wrapper in a stream, “mental retardation.” I am aware it’s no longer viable. The end came during the American vice presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin, minor political figure for whom the so called special needs family served as talking point.
Nowhere does semantic degeneration take on clearer outlines than in the discourse of intellectual disability, intellectual developmental disability, and no discourse is more salutary to the posture of the primary-school student fighting for social dominance, so it is on the schoolground and in the context of neurodevelopmental disorder that I learn this process, also called pejoration, by which, however honorable their intentions, words become offensive.
“Moron,” “imbecile,” “idiot.” “Retard.” “Cretin,” for example, cognate with “Christian,” “which in the modern Romanic languages,” the dictionary says, “means ‘human creature’ as distinguished from the brutes.”
We are in the waiting room of the lab, 1296- or 1728-point script on the wall in the color sometimes called seafoam reads Extending the healing ministry of Christ. In twenty-four hours we get on a plane; Paula hits twenty-two and then twenty-three weeks while we are in Romania; I’m about to describe not what I believe is necessarily right or appropriate but, again, what I think or feel, the terms in which I think and feel it, namely that for reasons I have not begun to fathom, for us to bring into the world a mentally retarded child is unacceptable, categorically. And yet, despite my understanding that the risk is small, it seems to me the process has already begun.
Outside, where I can get my phone to work, I stand beside a metal chair and try to contact our obstetrician, Lomax, who the nurse says will call me back later today. I start consulting my phone every ninety seconds or so, though I have no idea what I want to say to Dr. Lomax. I dial Ben, the first letters of Ben’s name, which makes me feel guilty about having left Paula behind in the waiting room. So I call my mom, who is at our house watching Sylvie, our one-year-old, the baby.
Paula has left the waiting room by the time I get there. I find her at the valet parking stand. Home, I behave so anxiously that she tells me to go on a bike ride, a position she has never taken before, since—compared with my former avocation, running—cycling is a time consuming and dangerous way to stay in shape. But now that my knee is apparently wearing out, it’s the best I can do. A man with a retarded son would have no time to himself, I think.
I speak to Ben just before the bike ride and develop with his counsel a clear set of objectives for the phone call: I need only establish with Lomax a plan to abort the pregnancy if blood work indicates, and amniocentesis, presumably, confirms, Down syndrome. Or worse. I put the phone in a handlebar bag and crane my neck until my ear is right up against the zipper, trying to make sure I am not missing the call from Lomax while I ride.
The cars seem to pass faster and closer than normal. I ride about sixteen miles, pedaling out to the Indian Creek Trail and back on my blue fixed gear, but no call comes. When I get home, in the durable light, I mow the lawn with our Finnish reel mower, and then, since my legs are so tired, break my rule about driving to school, where I arrive about 9:00 p.m., when on any other night I would be in bed. But, as with mowing the lawn, I feel I have no choice about watering the plants in my office—not with three weeks’ vacation looming—except the terrarium, which looks all right. So I drench the hoya, the crassulas and euphorbias, various succulents I have been meaning to identify.
I make to leave, but as I lock the door behind me I hear the winding sound of the AC turning on—the old three story house containing the Liberal Arts offices has been fitted with an institutional AC unit, with the result that every room is maintained at a temperature either excessively hot or excessively cold, almost incredibly hot or cold. In the summer my office is sometimes 45 degrees Fahrenheit. I keep a sweater hanging on a thumbtack beside one of the sway backed bookshelves. However, the worry now troubling me is not about extremes of temperature to which my plants might be subjected, but rather the extreme dryness of the conditioned climate, the dehydrating effect of the industrial volumes of cold dry air periodically flooding the office. Calculating with intense effort, I let myself back in.
I pride myself on a certain endowment of technical ingenuity and dexterity, and at times, especially in moments of anxiety, discover energy or drive to put this to use. I stand on a chair; in my hands I have the bin liner from the office wastebasket. I unscrew the single machine screw affixing the register to the wall, place the plastic bag over the duct, and replace the register so that the liner forms a seal. I turn the screw back into place and, exchanging the can opener/mini screwdriver for the small spear point blade on the thirty-year-old Victorinox Spartan I keep in my desk, a knife my father gave me for my seventh birthday, I trim the protruding parts of the liner from around the metal frame of the register, taking something like plea sure in the thought that my knife must be scratching the paint on the wall of this building in which everything is pointless, and which houses the L-shaped office conferring onto me the inglorious status of expert among undergraduates.
Just to say to myself the phrase “my knife” fortifies and reassures me somehow, as if of my place in an uninterrupted lineage of capable men.
I think of the school painter, a slight man with a narrow, tight plait descending the nape of his neck. This painter, I’m told, a man with whom I have not exchanged a word—though I have often engaged him in polite negotiation of the space in which we prosecute our mutually incompatible professions—has been diagnosed with stomach cancer, weeks to live.
Favoring my left knee, I get down from the chair. In a version of my own voice swollen with the kind of bluster I suspect marks my classroom manner, I hear the phrase “gastric carcinoma.”
Probably because of the extreme agitation that typifies my teaching style I have no clear image or memory of myself actually teaching, but I hear myself pronounce the words “gastric carcinoma” as if I were lecturing on The Death of Ivan Ilych, a novella I’ve assigned many times, though I haven’t really given a lecture on it and am not even sure what a lecture is, strictly speaking, let alone a novella.
By the time I drive home it is 9:45 p.m. I have neither packed nor made other preparations for the trip. Dr. Lomax has not called. I reason with myself in my dispiriting way, feeding out a customary line about efficiency, about handling the task more effectively in the morning, and therefore, by postponing the work, better husbanding my time. Why spend ninety cranky, muddleheaded minutes packing now, losing valuable sleep, when I might accomplish as much in just thirty next morning with a clear head and cheerful countenance.
More than cheerful, since I will be rushing on four cups of coffee, brilliant thirty-year plans springing forth effortless and fully formed amid the billions of surplus cycles of my throbbing brain. But even as I lay out this rationale for the delay I know its real motivation is a desire to protect my mood—not that it is a good mood, quite the contrary. Yet the worse my mood gets, a decline typically starting mid-afternoon, the more pressing seems my need to maintain it, to keep it from further harm. I climb into bed.
"Cyrus Console's Romanian Notebook is among the strangest, most compelling representations of human thought in contemporary literature . . . The thoughts Console records during his voyage are like highly formal buildings with reinforced structures that resist the pressure of time and the elements. . . . The length and complexity of Console’s sentences teach us, like Proust’s, that the natural language of thought is not speech but writing."
Michael W. Clune, Los Angeles Review of Books